Trapped in a hellish afterlife, standing under matching spotlights, three once-strong women are condemned to relive their pasts. In life, each was close to the emperor Nero; in death they taunt and tease each other, continuing the power-games that defined ancient Rome. Hectored and belittled by a domineering director, they’re forced to act out the true stories of their lives – night after night for all eternity, over and over again. But tonight, it seems, things are different. Tonight’s the night they’ll defy the script, and try to wrench back some semblance of control.
Playwright James Beagon’s work is breathtakingly ambitious – and while his conceptual complexities do occasionally grow overwhelming, on the whole he pulls his vision off. Women Of The Mourning Fields is simultaneously a history lesson, a commentary on the very nature of historical stories, and a gentle deconstruction of theatre itself. The big ideas are somewhat familiar ones – there’s a hint of No Exit, an echo of Six Characters In Search Of An Author – but it’s still an imaginative and hugely intelligent piece of writing, which dares to demand a lot from its audience and, in consequence, delivers greater-than-usual rewards.
As they describe the intrigue surrounding Nero’s ascent to power, the three doomed women quarrel for control of a pen – a pen which, in this meta-theatrical afterlife, allows them to re-write their script and change our perspective on history. From time to time I lost the narrative thread, but on the whole I felt intrigued more than confused, like a detective piecing together a coherent view of the truth from conflicting eyewitness accounts. And like all good detective stories, there’s a fair degree of chicanery; one particularly effective device sees two conversations played out simultaneously, drawing poignant contrasts between private truths and public lies.
A few passages of acting are stronger than others, but all three principals develop nicely contrasting roles, with Rebecca Forsyth standing out particularly as the jilted wife whose quietness disguises a capacity for determination. Among the five-member supporting cast, Joseph McAulay plays his cards well as Nero, eschewing obvious stereotypes and capturing a creeping transformation from pleasant young man to hated despot. And there are some well-judged injections of humour as well – with the funniest in-jokes invariably coming at the most unexpected of moments.
So there’s no denying that Women Of The Mourning Fields will demand your focus, but it’s a sterling example of high-concept theatre done right. You don’t have to know your classical history to enjoy this piece; you’ll just need some human empathy, and above all an enquiring mind. Hang on in there through the slightly lumpish start, and you’ll find it develops into a compelling, enthralling hour. And towards the end – when you finally realise just who that dictatorial director stands for – you might find that your attitude to Nero isn’t the only perspective that’s changed.