Writer: Helen Reuben
Director: Donnacadh O’Briain
It begins with a funeral and ends with life beginning, at least that is what Marianne thinks is happening in Helen Reuben’s powerful monologue Saviour running at the Jermyn Street Theatre as part of the Footprints Festival. As Marianne contemplates the physical and spiritual pain of Christianity in the context of modern living, love and the burden of family, she wonders if we can inherit trauma from millennia ago.
At 29-years old, Marianne is lost, working as a cater-waiter with a single friend, Cheska, who she looks up to. When her namesake grandmother dies, Marianne soon meets John in a coffee shop and they seek a simpler, more perfect lifestyle. Only, Marianne cannot stop wondering about the reality of the immaculate conception and its consequences for Jesus 33 years later.
Saviour is a cleverly constructed performance, structured as a multi-layered conversation directed at the audience in which Reuben recounts a few months in Marianne’s life, told entirely from the character’s slightly mixed-up perspective. By subtly shifting the timelines and having them intersect at crucial moments, Reuben creates an intensity in performance that slowly builds a picture of Marianne’s declining mental health.
A growing obsession with the Virgin Mary feeds through the show, first seen in stained glass overseeing her grandmother’s funeral but recurring as statues and increasingly in the stories that Marianne tells about a young pregnant woman trying to pass off her baby as the son of God to hide a grislier truth, be it adultery or abuse, all of which speak to Marianne’s grief and uncertainty about her place in the world.
That these stories link to a frank discussion about the pain and physicality of menstruation is meaningful, not only the biblical view as punishment for Eve’s temptation but as a symbol of reproduction. This is matched by an equal interest in the crucifixion and, when the protagonist describes her carpenter lover John driving a nail through his hand without feeling it, the audience need only look to the unexplained bandage on the character’s hand to see Marianne’s own delusion becoming clearer.
Reuben skilfully takes Marianne from sweet loner dealing with the unexpected suicide of a beloved grandparent to something far more complex and increasingly alarming as the character systematically detaches from friends and stability to live alone and cut off from everything. And while Marianne tries to medicate away all kinds of pain at first, across Saviour she starts to embrace it, leaving the audience to wonder how much of what she says is really true.
Performing as Marianne, Reuben has full control of the pace of information and the carefully unfolding perspective she wants her character to convey at different points in the show. There is an easy off-the-cuff humour in the beginning that eases us into her story and the eccentricities of other people, but this soon evolves into confusion as Reuben’s Marianne contradicts herself, undermining her own claims immediately, pressured by the infrequent knocking that signals slight changes of direction.
Reuben has created a troubled young woman trying to define herself through other people and there is a huge amount packed into 60-minutes. Running for just four performances, Saviour is a highlight of the Footprints Festival, a play that uses its fluid structure to sow seeds of doubt about the reliability of the narrator while questioning what the quest for female perfection has driven her to.
Runs until 25 July 2021