Writers: April De Angelis, Stella Duffy, Isley Lynn, Chinonyerem Odimba and Lorna French
Directors: Adjoa Andoh, Tom Littler, and Cat Robey
Completing the trifecta of a grander project, 15 Heroines, The Jermyn Street Theatre’s revived performance of Roman poet Ovid’s The Heroides collects fifteen letters and explores the spurned and thwarted lives of women and re-shapes them for a contemporary era, written, performed, and directed by female or non-binary theatre-makers. The Desert sees these final letters, capturing the lowest points in these women’s lives as husks of their once opulent lives, having come cascading downward – feelings of insecurity, regret, and blazing thirst for retribution fuel their desire to share their stories.
Sweeping in to tie together the remaining five stories from Ovid’s collection, The Desert rewrites the original series of letters into a sequence of monologues, each differing in purpose but linked by the thing which separates The Desert from its sister productions The War and The Labyrinth. The Desert takes its key strength from its dissociation; here the five tales share a motif of abandonment, isolation or an unparalleled rage, but they don’t adhere to a connected narrative where the others tie to the Grecian tales of the Trojan War or Theseus and Jason.
The initial concerns of stereotyping and hammy casting die out rather quickly, as April De Angelis’ Deianaria takes a stark turn into unexpected avenues, and demonstrates a brazen ability and ambition to not skirt around subjects and instead plunge readily into contemporary atrocities which tragically keep their roots in classical history. A woman, replaced by a younger model, begins as a rather run-of-mill magazine cover until we realise that youth and ‘stardom’ have grimmer connotations.
Paedophilia, incest, and abuse are the repugnantly earthy sins The Desert uncovers, and the most robust in their execution. The dynamic shift alters the perception of stories, as Indra Ové’s wannabe WAG Deianaria snaps attention to the tabloid nature of sexual assault with minors, and the protections the rich, famous and ‘sporting’ men surround themselves with as the young they abuse are abandoned, shamed.
It isn’t all forthcoming or well carried, as even the most steadfast of performances cannot save a dreary script. An affliction Stella Duffy’s Dido suffers. The division of the production offers roughly the same running time for each story, but Dido draws itself out at the tail-end. The writing bogs itself in attempted character creation, sacrificing much of the tension or narrative complexity in an attempt to forge a relationship which isn’t latching on.
The particular highlight, where the fusion of the contemporary veils itself over revised source material, is with the gradual maddening presence of Eleanor Tomlinson as her appearance on a ‘reality show’ draws Grecian tragedy into a modern, recognisable setting. And while the subject of incest isn’t one to draw debate over here, the parallels of the ravenous information and gossip mongers clambering onto Canace makes Isley Lynn’s the most well-developed of the stories for The Desert.
Deviating, Hypermestra dips its toe into a firmer root of which Ovid would find familiarity, garbed primarily in rhyme and poetry. Due to this, one would expect a tougher sell, but Nicholle Cherrie’s control of the stage is mesmeric as her diction expands on Chinonyerem Odimba’s reworking of Hypermestra. It’s a multi-layered performance which leads into Martina Laird’s performance of Sappho closing out the production in a powerful statement on conformity and nonsensical systemic racism. Coming to a poignant conclusion which makes its stance, not with force, but with a broken cry into the night.
On occasion The Desert harps itself too much on the men who surround these stories, forgetting to place faith and triumph in the creators, performers and women who associate themselves with the production. And while the winds of despair continue to blow against the efforts of women, individual characters grasp at autonomy as they emerge from the dusted tomes of their precursors, only to find themselves still shackled to patriarchal grievances.
Available here in rep until 14 November 2020