Tackling both age-old and modern-day themes of justice and injustice in the justice system through the Ancient Greek stories of Icarus, Phaedra and Ariadne is a bold and ambitious concept. Themis Theatre, who aim to centre women’s narratives, have taken a playful, entertaining and eventually quite starkly defiant look at the topic of women’s safety in the justice system in The Dissent. The trio make use of exciting and interesting imagery with wings, horns and other extrageneous body parts being morphed onto the bodies of the performers through the use of two white curtains, hung atop a rail at the back of the stage. Part court drama, part fascinating adaptation of Greek myth, and part campaigning play, there’s a lot going on here. It’s possible that The Dissent spreads itself a bit too thinly to deliver the suckerpunch Themis Theatre are hoping for, but it’s a valiant effort nonetheless.
We begin with the performers, Ruby Blue Tansey-Thomas, Libby Boyd and Charlotte Boyle, dancing onto the stage and wrapping each other in the white linens that drape the back of the stage. It isn’t long before Boyd takes command of these drapes and begins to use them as wings, flapped and waved to create the effects of wind. A multi-roling piece, one of Boyd’s early roles is as Icarus, a Woman in this adaptation, who suddenly finds herself in the Land of the Dead, Hades’ realm, faced opposite the Cretian King Minos, now a Judge in the court of the Underworld. Minos will decide whether Icarus passes to the Ancient Greek Heaven, Hell or the purgatorial Asphodel Fields, where her self-hood will fade and she will live forever as a shade of her former self. Icarus, of course, is not given a fair trial, and is soon joined by her fellow mistreated purgatorial women – Minos’ daughters Phaedra and Ariadne.
The resulting court-drama that plays out relives each of the lives of the three Women centred, with each telling their story to resist the patriarchal, misogynistic court ruled over by Minos in the Underworld. This sees each of the actors transmorph into various figures of patriarchy – Minos himself, as well as Icarus’ Father the master craftsman Daedalus, and the hero, Theseus. Each quickly dispel the women’s stories, and lament that they would not make it into Heaven regardless as it is a place reserved for heroic men, not women. The references to patriarchy here are rather explicit, but it quickly becomes apparent that Themis Theatre are hoping to blend in critiques and language used against women in modern day courts. Phrases like “What were you expecting, dressed like that?” or “What were you expecting, if you were drunk?”, bleed into the piece with passion and urgency. It clearly becomes evident that we are seeing the themes of a campaigning play emerge in the background of the piece.
By the end, the metaphorical stage curtain drops, and the performers emerge to deliver a powerful message about the misjustices against women carried about by the supposed-justice system, with explicit reference to recent events such as the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder. This moment feels reverent, poised and is exceptionally impactful. Unfortunately, the bleeding-through of the message earlier in the play does not point or build up to it quite so well tonally, which leaves it feeling a little disconnected from the rest of the piece. The piece equally does a good job of making Greek Myths accessible to all audiences, the same cannot be said for many adaptations of Ancient Greek Theatre. In seeking to fulfill both of these aims – exposing injustice and accessibility to mythical story – the piece sometimes feels as though it is scrambling to cover all bases, rather than committing heartily to one or the other.
The performances range from fantastic to not-so-memorable. Boyd’s Theseus is an absolute standout, with physicality and confidence reflecting brilliantly onto the piece’s conception of man’s hubris. Equally, performances as Phaedra and Ariadne from Tansey-Thomas and Boyle respectively are sensitive and rousing – the whole piece has a great deal of respect for the women it puts at its heart and its fantastic to watch as they grow in empowerment. That arc is handled well, and feels pertinent. The appropriation of Icarus’ story for women is an interesting case – I am not particularly sure why it had to be Icarus’ story that was brought forward, given he is a man in the original myths, but it generally seems to work, even if it doesn’t appear to be a very sense-driven choice.
The physical parts of the piece are stunningly well-integrated. Sometimes pieces which mesh drama and physical theatre suffer from a cringe-inducing inability to properly deliver both of those things. Here, however, it is clear that Themis Theatre have spent much time working out how to balance the two and deliver something which feels special, timely and honest. Also well integrated are the moments of humour, which are memorable and never distract from the piece’s core focus. The wigs are questionable, but add to the more fun elements of what we’re watching.
Fresh, resourceful and smartly performed – The Dissent may have its’ flaws but its’ ambition and heart are clear. A passionate call-to-arms to fight injustice against women and centre their narratives, at it’s best this piece is enthrallingly lucid and desperately timely.
Recommended Drink: The Dissent is an Ouzito – tangy, refreshing and with a sharp aftertaste.
Performances of The Dissent have now concluded at VAULT Festival. Take a look at Themis Theatre’s website for future showings of the piece.