“How would a monstrous social outcast, murdered by a hero, see things differently?” is but one of the questions that Ad Infinitum seeks to ask with their epic devised physical theatre show, Beautiful Evil Things. Guided by the gorgon Medusa – or at least her severed head, delightfully sardonic from her place at the centre of the shield of Athena – we find ourselves submerged in a world of men and monsters, with little indication as to which might be which. What comes next is a 75 minute katabasis into the depths of the Trojan War, retold in heightened verse that would blend in easily at any City Dionysia, with Deborah Pugh as our capable and dynamic ferryman.
EdFringe is no stranger to a mythological retelling. From Antigone to Achilles to the famed Helen of Troy, almost every tragic figure in Greek mythology has had their case pled onstage. In Beautiful Evil Things, however, co-creators Pugh and George Mann focus on three women oft overlooked, or at least oft reduced to only one all-encompassing quality: the doomed prophetess Cassandra, the vengeful wife Clytemnestra, and the Amazonian queen Penthesilea, the latter of whom I have never seen featured in an onstage retelling.
The staging is simple yet deliberate as you enter the Pleasance QueenDome (appropriately, an amphitheatre-like space), with a semicircle of five microphones, a large circle of red wires and a single red chest. A lone figure enters the stage, and following monstrous screeches and animalistic cries, a whisper reverberates around the room: “This is the story of my severed head.” Medusa smiles knowingly at us from behind a pair of sunglasses. “Don’t worry,” she assures us after she removes them, “I’m wearing very special contact lenses. You’re all perfectly sssssssafe.” And despite the anxiety-inducing nature of the stories Medusa tells us, we do feel safe in the clever, sure grasp of solo performer Deborah Pugh. From go, Pugh is entirely invested in the story she is telling us, presenting us with a Medusa who not only embodies the monstrous snake-headed woman we have come to know, but revels in doing so. Pugh’s Medusa is funny and passionate, providing commentary both scathing (in the case of Ajax, who she (fairly) calls a whole slew of expletives) and sympathetic (in the case of Cassandra, whom Medusa emphatically names “my friend”). It is an incredible feat to maintain the same level of energy for the show’s entire 1 hour 15 minute run time, but Pugh does so easily.
Props must also be given to the technical designers for this show. The soundscape and lighting are so fitting throughout, the back-and-forth between performer and technical team so slick it almost feels like magic. A personal favourite example of mine was the motif used to introduce the goddess Athena. Pugh would move as if throwing some form of magic powder to the ground, and would be rewarded with an earth-shaking boom which reverberated throughout the room, demonstrating the goddess’ great strength and might. Tech was used expertly to assist Pugh in weaving such an epic tale, but was not so showy that it overwhelmed the action.
The scenes which I found most effective, and those which allowed Pugh to really demonstrate her skills in performance, were the dialogues between Achilles and Penthesilea in their final battle. Using a mic stand as a sword, spear, and axe all in one, Pugh flipped back and forth expertly between the two characters, and while her transformation was only indicated by a shift in posture and voice, it truly felt as though both characters were existing onstage simultaneously and independent of each other, such was Pugh’s commitment to specific gestures and behaviours for each character in her arsenal. Her decisions were always carefully planned, but not so unspontaneous that I felt recited at rather than shared with, and as she explored the worst parts of Cassandra’s story, playing both victim and abuser, I experienced both hatred and sympathy simultaneously as though there were two actors.
I feel the show ran a little longer than was optimal. While I was pleased to see the stories of these women explored in such depth, at times repeated asides to the audience at tense moments proved slightly jarring and at times deterred from the depth of feeling I had been experiencing. In addition, I would have liked to have seen more use made of the red wires spread around the stage, as well as more use of the non-central microphones – the stands in particular are integral props, so I’m not sure if this was for the sake of ease, but the props took up a lot of space for limited use.
Overall, Beautiful Evil Things is a passionate, raw exploration of Greek mythology through the eyes of someone who holds no loyalty to its heroes. Pugh is a powerhouse under George Mann’s direction, and all members of Ad Infinitum should be proud of what they have created. I for one look forward to what they produce next.
Recommended Drink: Nectar of the gods, if available. If not, plain old red wine: rich, red, and just a little bit bitter.
Catch Beautiful Evil Things until August 27th (not the 14th & 21st) at 15:40. Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.