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15 Heroines: The War – Jermyn Street Theatre

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: Charlotte Jones, Lettie Precious, Sabrina Mahfouz, Abi Zakarian and Hannah Khalil

Directors: Adjoa Andoh, Tom Littler and Cat Robey

While Greek mythology has some wonderfully fierce female characters – Medea and Antigone, for instance – many are minor players in the battles between men. Perhaps this focus on the men in the stories is a relatively modern fascination as Ovid placed women at the centre of one of his works. In Heriodes (The Heroines), a series of letters, 15 Greek women write to their male lovers who have deserted them for other women, or have left them alone to go off to war. Now 2,000 years later The Jermyn Street Theatre as commissioned 15 female or non-binary playwrights to bring these letters up-to-date. The result is a mixed bag.

Five of these letters are reimagined in the anthology The War, looking at the fates of five women whose lives have been affected by the Trojan Wars, where Menelaus declares war on Paris, the lover of his wife Helen. While all the five writers in this section have modernised the time period to involve such inventions as mobile phones and social media platforms, only two appear to have modernised their women.

Laodamia, Oenone and Penelope seem old-fashioned and needy. Lettie Precious’s play about Oenone, the woman Paris was with before he went off with Helen, is ambitious and examines the idea of internalised racism. In this version Paris and Oenone are darker skinned, but Paris now drinks white wine as he moves on to Helen. As the spurned woman, Ann Ogbomo is imposing but her heightened acting, perfect for Shakespeare, seems too classical for this kind of update.

Penelope, on the other hand, is a bit wet as she waits for Ulysses to come home. In Hannah Khalil’s story Penelope makes dresses for other people instead of sewing patiently for herself as in the original. Jokes about the wives’ WhatsApp group are mildly funny, but there’s no influence of the recent successes of feminisms on this portrayal of one of the most famous of Greek women. Another left by her husband to go off to war is Laodamia, but in Charlotte Jones’s story the comedy in Sophia Eleni’s performance makes this one of the best stories of the bunch. Pouting, and selfie-taking Laodamia is more TOWIE than Greek myth, but Eleni makes this woman feel very contemporary.

The other two writers take more liberties with the original text. In her version of the Hermione story, Sabrina Mahfouz has today’s Royal Family in her target, and Rebekah Murrell’s depiction of Helen’s daughter doomed to marry a man she doesn’t love ensures this play carries some urgency. However, Abi Zakarian turns her tale on its head. There is more to her Briseis than meets the eye, and Jemima Rooper’s extraordinarily chatty and confiding performance demonstrates this as she begins to remove her wedding dress and fake eyelashes. This Briseis knows how to play the world; the other women in this anthology appear to accept their fates in the usual Greek way.

All filmed at the Jermyn Street Theatre, each play lasts about 15 minutes, but as they focus on character rather than plot a few do outstay their welcome by a few minutes. This new appraisal of Ovid’s work is very timely, but these modern women, save perhaps Briseis, are as tied to men as their predecessors were.

Runs in rep here 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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