The Silk Labyrinth
by David Pérez Fernández
Redress Theatre Company
Directors: Leonor Bethencourt Gallagher, Noelia Ruiz, Kristian Marken, Donncha O’Dea, Evelyn McGrory, Sandra Villegas, Patrick J. Byrnes
With: Jennifer Murray (Lucia), Céire O’Donoghue (Juana), Claire Lyons (Marilyn), Bernadette O’Reilly (Abisag), Andrew Crowe (Moraima), Elga Fox (Dido), Eva Cristina Urban (Maria), Tara Nixon O’Neill (Alfonsina).
Dublin: Smock Alley, October 28 - November 8, 2008
The Silk Labyrinth is a poetry collection by David Pérez Fernández who, according to his introduction, sought “to write in a female voice” and “to tell the reader about the sentimental process that heartbreak causes.” The theatrical adaptation presents a series of seven monologues framed by a master monologue from the personage of Lucia Joyce, daughter of James: dancer, and, for most of her life, institutionalised because of schizophrenia. From this vantage point, each of the other seven women become echoes of Joyce’s multiple internal voices, symptoms of her madness, and I’m not entirely sure that was the intention. However, her experience as a woman born in the shadow of a famous man, living an ultimately unrealised life trapped behind psychic and physical walls, does represent the situation of all of the other women whose voices we hear, so maybe it’s not inappropriate.
The play has one director per segment, and each segment is performed by one actor, making it a rather large undertaking for something so ultimately small. Presented against the stark walls of Smock Alley, with a few attractive but irrelevant ceiling hangings by West Patrick Connolly, this is an extremely straightforward performance piece, and it does feel rather more like an exercise than a fully realised work of theatre.
The major difficulty is the level of repetition. Though each of the lives of the women represented (Lucia Joyce, Juana La Loca: Queen of Castile, Marilyn Monroe, Abishag the Shunammite: nurse of King David, Moriama de Granada: a Moorish princesa, Queen Dido of Carthage, Mary Magdalene, and Argentinian poet Afonsina Stormi) no doubt was filled with experiences so radically different that their voices, no matter how correlative the emotions associated with those experiences, would have been very different from one another. However, in spite of superficial references to names and places from each of their time periods, most of these characters say essentially the same thing. All of them are literally and figuratively trapped because of men who have left them for one reason or another (arrest, death, war, business, whatever), and all of them are either angry about it or in so much pain from yearning and desire that... well... they’re angry about it.
The other major shortcoming stems directly from the first, which is that all of these voices are that of one author. In spite of what are his obvious intentions, Fernández has not given these women any distinction from other another to a point that makes the seven monologues worth hearing. Any single one would do. For all its problems, the core of what made Sex and the City work for so long was its obvious but effective splintering of the female character into four distinct elements. Here Fernández’ reading of “the sentimental process” is focused on a single note and complete in minutes, then it continues for hours. The result is that it falls to the actors to make this a worthwhile experience, and that is certainly possible, though it also smacks of a training exercise in needing this to be so.
Unfortunately here again there is a deficiency in this production. Again what we see feels like more of the same as each woman delivers yet another studied representation of anger of one degree or another, with hues of jealousy, bitterness, frustration, anxiety, doubt, and despair. They’re all pretty angry though, and anger, easy enough to play, can dominate any performance far too easily unless very carefully controlled. The skills of the performers in delivering the necessary tonal variance range from very good (Tara Nixon O’Neill, playing Alfonsina Stormi, is by far the best thing in the show, bringing variety to her delivery and dimension to her different emotions which gives a much greater impression of a fully-faceted character) to appalling (Elga Fox, playing Dido, is vocally flat, facially inexpressive, and looks completely lost on stage). In between are various performative bits of business including some dance and some miscellaneous handling of props and costume, most of which feel inessential (frankly, Eva Christina Urban, playing Mary Magdalene, looks like she’s been given things to do to stop her bursting into laughter: this is not a natural dramatic actor - her demeanour suggests a comic ironist).
The result of all of this is a pretty tedious evening’s theatre. It’s not that either the material or the performers are inherently valueless, but there is something at the heart of this presentation that feels inflated. Though advertised as being the work of eight directors, eight performers, and presenting eight stories, it’s really not that. It’s a small, small interpretation of the feminine emotional response to entrapment rendered by a single poet, and the variants on the theme are really not great enough to stretch into a work of magnitude, which is what it seems to believe it is.