15 Heroines: The Labyrinth – Jermyn Street Theatre

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers: Bryony Lavery, Timberlake Wertenbaker, Samantha Ellis, Natalie Haynes, and Juliet Gilkes Romero

Directors: Adjoa Andoh, Tom Littler, and Cat Robey

Revisionist and unapologetic, The Labyrinth takes on the stories of Roman poet Ovid, shifting them into a 21st century perspective.

With any attempt to revise a classic, the source material has to lend itself to reinterpretation, and The Jermyn Street Theatre focusing on Ovid’s heroines – has chosen well. Blending Greek and Roman mythology, Ovid’s classical text The Heroides explores women thwarted. Left abandoned, despairing and traumatised, Ovid’s heroines in the anthology The Labyrinth (Ariadne, Phaedra, Phyllis, Hypsipyle and Medea) articulate their rage through letters and poems.

Part of a larger project, 15 Heroines, this performance takes the voices of Ovid’s heroines and amplifies them. Rewritten as a series of monologues, the women and their stories are examined at close range. What emerges is an exploration of power – the personal and political.

We start with String. Based on The Minotaur, we are introduced to the creature’s sister, Ariadne (played by Patsy Ferran). She has been abandoned by Theseus after slaying the half-man / half-bull. Ariadne relates how she gave Theseus the means of finding his way in (and out) of the labyrinth. It is clear that Ariadne is more than the purveyor of string. With a broad-reaching education, Ariadne traces a line between ancient logic and the “fundamental interactions of the universe”. Ferran is excellent – Ariadne becomes a tragi-comic heroine, clutching onto the anchors of power and privilege.

The stories that follow take up the metaphor of the string, threading through each other’s narratives. In Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Pity the Monster, we find Theseus in his second marriage, now married to Phaedra (sister of Ariadne). Played by Dona Croll, Phaedra addresses her stepson, Hippolytus. There is chemistry between them – she debates whether their desire should be consummated.

Dressed to impress, Croll delivers an assured sensuality. This is not just a seduction by ideas. She asks Hippolytus to consider disorder over perfection; a person who is part myth, part human: undefined and indefinable. She teases Hippolytus with thoughts of “woman uncontrolled”.

The Labyrinth looks at the woman uncontrolled in the monologues I’m Still Burning and Know I Should Have. Writers Samantha Ellis and Natalie Haynes’ heroines edge away their mythological roots and into our own age. Hypsipyle (Olivia Williams) and Phyllis (Nathalie Armin) are rulers in their own right. Both have impressive pedigree – Hypsipyle is the granddaughter of Bacchus (and sinks enough wine to make the point). As Hypsipyle, a superb Olivia Williams cuts a dry and bitter tone as she chastises her husband for sailing off in search of The Golden Fleece, and finding another girl while he’s at it. Downing another glass of red, Hypsipyle ponders the rumour that her husband’s new love is a witch.

In The Gift, we meet Medea. Played by Nadine Marshall, this ‘Barbarian Princess’ is more myth than human. The rumours of savagery and witchcraft dissipate as we find Medea under house arrest, with her sons asleep beside her. Medea recalls her first kill at 12: a female deer, shot in front of its children. The man who left Hypsipyle has already grown tired of Medea, returning home with a new bride. Medea admits that her instinct was to present him with a gift. Unfortunately his bride opens it first. Marshall, playing on a knife edge, gives us the woman behind the myth: neglected, frustrated and desperate.

What emerges from these monologues is that, like Ariadne’s ball of string, the thread only takes us to the place, not the motive. The Labyrinth’s voices are complex, diverse and unexpected. These are wives, mothers, objects of desire – but they are also scholars, rulers and killers. It is the psychological insight that makes The Labyrinth so watchable. By taking ownership of their stories, the women not only speak for themselves, but also step out from the pages of Ovid. When it comes to mythology, The Labyrinth shows us that it’s not who starts the story: it’s who has the final word.

Available here in rep until 14 November 2020

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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