Writer: Charlotte Jones
Director: Anthony Skuse
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
There’s a rotten history in the British Isles of squaring away the shameful family secrets. The moral imbeciles, the inverts, the unmarried mothers. In Ireland they had the catholic institutions doing the dirty work, hiding unmarried mothers and their children from right-thinking society for the vast majority of the 20th Century. Airswimming takes a stark look at the British equivalent, a more secular incarceration, but a 50-year sentence for non-conformity nonetheless.
Dorph has been there since 1922 for the crime of smoking Spanish cigars and wanting to dress in men’s clothes sometimes. She’s joined in 1924 by Porph, a 20-year-old pre-debutante from fairly upper-class family. She has been incarcerated by “Daddy” for bearing the baby of her father’s friend Reggie. We don’t hear what happened to him, but her story is the ideal icon with which to illustrate the hypocrisy and unfairness this system of shame and misogynistic punishment represented.
Told in a jumping timeline, moving from the 20s, to some time in the 50s and then 1972 with stops and reverts in between, we’re allowed to slowly piece together the lives of these two women. There’s a compassionate sketch here of the impact of loneliness and the fragility of mental health, with an equally emotive cry against the waste of human potential these institutions were responsible for.
As Dorph, Emma Playfair provides the dominant energy in the coupling. As the character obsesses over military history and over detail and memory, her portrayal of the woman over 50 years through declining physical and mental health is draining to watch. We’re drawn in, feeling the loss of life alongside her through a very engaging performance. Lily Newbury-Freeman as Porph (Persephone) begins stroppy and snobbish, disbelieving that her father could incarcerate her like this. Her growing acceptance of her position and her ways of coping (including an in-depth obsession with Doris Day) are heartbreaking, though never pathetic, a neat trick to pull off.
Stark messages in the material are reflected in Becky-Dee Trevenen’s set and costume design, with the lighting from Joshua Gadsby and sound from Jon McLeod coming together perfectly to create moods of intimacy, of danger and of discomfort.
Though bleak in message and (without giving spoilers) arguably bleak in conclusion, this is a strangely uplifting play. The women are strong characters, we believe in them and their power to persevere. They are funny, kind to each other and retain shining and admirable humanity in the face of unimaginable distress.
Although the accents do slip sometimes from the RP of Porph and the more working class tone of Dorph, the mood is sustained through a full 100 or so minutes without a break. Writer Charlotte Jones and director Anthony Skuse, along with the two cast and the crew, have created a thoughtful, direct work here that keeps the audience interested. If only it ran longer so that audience could grow.
Runs until 30 October 2016 | Image: Contributed