Writer: Martin O’Brien
Director: Paul Jepson
Reviewer: Lucy Corley
Brave, transformative and almost unbearably perceptive, this one-woman show by Exeter Northcott Theatre is unlike any other piece of theatre.
Josephine (Agata Jarosz) is a Romanian girl who has been working as a prostitute in England. Believed to be a victim of human trafficking, she is granted 45 days in a safe house by the Government, after which she must decide if she wants to stay in the UK or go home to her family. As the days pass and Josephine talks to the audience, we witness first-hand the psychological harm she has endured, and how impossible it feels to just ‘decide’ what to do next.
Many companies would be afraid to take on a show of such magnitude, resting entirely on one performer, but Paul Jepson’s direction is utterly fearless, and Jarosz’ performance is exceptional.
The show is somehow un-theatrical, managing to steer clear of conventional devices that would remind audience members they are at the theatre and diffuse the production’s urgency. Dominic Jeffrey’s minimalist lighting is spot-on in creating moments of tension and fear without foregrounding itself, and Jarosz is so unselfconscious that it feels like Josephine herself is addressing us. The lack of the ‘fourth wall’ that keeps a play comfortably separate from its audience’s lives reminds us that this show is many people’s reality.
Stumbling onto the stage, Jarosz’ whole body speaks of Josephine’s experiences: legs shaking in high heels, posture hunched and tight, and beady black eyes staring unflinchingly into our own. She may look like a cornered mouse, but it is soon clear that Josephine is far from a pushover. Her lines are spoken powerfully, defiantly in a strong Romanian accent as she laughs at those who pity her and declares that she is not a victim: “I chose this.”
Jarosz is often funny as well as tough: she tells us mockingly of the cutesy safe house rituals like ‘Community Time,’ and gives a brilliant send-up of the kind babblings and probing questions asked by safe house manager Sister Bernadette (“Call me Bernie!”). Alone on stage, Jarosz maintains the narrative with unfaltering emotional precision and we cannot look away, as slowly we become aware of what lurks in the things Josephine hasn’t told us; the parts she cannot let herself remember.
Martin O’Brien’s non-judgemental script gives a rare insight into the psyche of someone who has been abused. As Josephine begins to inflict pain on herself, we witness a victim’s mind reacting to collude with her abusersand understand how women can truly feel love for their rapists. As an audience member, the impulse to help Josephine combined with the impossibility of doing so is deeply moving.
The evening is unfortunately somewhat marred by a misjudged Q&A session led by Jepson. Bounding onstage the moment the applause has died down, Jepson’s jovial, welcoming attitude is at odds with the still-reeling audience, and inadvertently patronising as Jarosz is given little chance to speak.
This format does (eventually) start a discussion about themes that need to be talked about, but it feels slightly superfluous – the audience’s stunned silence at the start of the Q&A confirms the impact Jarosz’ performance has had. Having directed something of such sensitivity and power, it would be far better to let the show do the talking.
While misguided, the evening’s ending doesn’t alter the fact that a production of this calibre deserves to tour and reach a wide audience. At times, it can be difficult to watch, but This Is My Body needs to be witnessed: it is a voice for a group of people who, in theatre at least, have until now been voiceless.
Runs until 24 March 2016 | Image: Contributed