Women of the Mourning Fields

Aug 16 2015 | By More

★★★★☆   Ambitious historical drama

Paradise in The Vault (Venue 29): Mon 10 – Sun 30 Aug 2015

History is told by the writers, not the participants. That’s the message at the heart of this fascinating piece from Aulos Productions in which the forgotten women of Rome finally have their say.

The ambitious play opens with bodies strewn across the stage and three women, in the spotlight, dismissed by an offstage voice. It’s the Voice, the writer of history, who has the women – Agrippina, Poppaea and Octavia – daily reenact their tragic fates.

The Cast of Women of the Mourning Fields. Photo Aulos Productions

The cast of Women of the Mourning Fields. Photo Aulos Productions

Or rather, their fates as he sees fit to present them. And they’ve had enough. Rather than go sleep after their latest performance like good little girls, the bickering trio – wives or lovers of Roman emperors – elect to present their own versions of events.

Summoning the Writer’s actors back to life, they tell their histories as they lived them, rejecting the lazy roles into which they, and their sister-forebears, have been pigeonholed. They’re not the scheming mother, the harlot mistress, the saintly matron, bit players in the drama of men – they’re living, complex women whose leave meant something.

James Beagon writes, directs and, appropriately, voices the writer-God to whom the women at the heart of this impressive production are meant to kowtow. And if there’s a more challenging drama at this year’s Fringe, I’d be surprised. The sheer number of characters whose histories intertwine in competing versions is dizzying – every one of the production’s actors, who each play multiple roles, deserves a medal for delivering great performances while remembering who they’re meant to be at any one time.


And if this show requires concentration from the players, it’s an even bigger ask for the audience, who haven’t had the benefit of living with the script while the production was put together. If you’ve a Robert Graves-level knowledge of Octavia, Caligula, Nero and co, you’ll probably get a huge amount from Women of the Mourning Fields. If, like me, your knowledge of Ancient Rome doesn’t extend much beyond I, Claudius and Asterix the Gaul, you might lose the plot trying to follow it.

Happily, the playing is entertaining enough that it’s possible to not worry about the intricate detail in order to enjoy the big picture, and parse the message. The individual performances of lead actors Grace Gilbert, Sophie Harris and Rebecca Forsyth are rich and nuanced, and they work superbly together as the engine of the plot. The rest of the cast weave in and out of their tales, adding detail and texture to events with brio.

Beagon’s offstage voice booms with perhaps a bit too much panto camp, but he certainly captures the superior smarm of his creation; he might, though, think again about the banging noises off, which imply the Voice is at the top of a beanstalk.

The costumes supplied by Poppy Richards look great, gathering and shining in all the right places, while Caroline Lesemann-Elliott’s music emphasised the drama without overpowering it. They, and the rest of the technical and creative crew deserve huge credit for ensuring this ambitious drama comes off.

The show isn’t perfect: Octavia’s pen of power which allows the wielder to control the drama is a little naff, and a bit of audience participation pricks the spell that has been woven, but these are little things –Women of the Mourning Fields is a compelling, always entertaining piece of theatre that puts a new spin on history. Don’t miss it.

Running time: 1 hour
Paradise in The Vault (Venue 29) ​ 11 Merchant Street, EH1 2QD
Monday 10 – Sunday 30 August 2015
Daily (not ) 10.30am.
Book tickets through the EdFringe website: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/women-of-the-mourning-fields


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