Monday, September 25, 2017

Theatre: Hypatia (★★★)

Devised and performed by The Open Lid Ensemble
The Blue Room Theatre until August 26

What an interesting pair of plays are now on at the Blue Room Theatre.
Scott McArdle’s Laika (reviewed in last weekend’s West) took us inside the Soviet space programme of the 1960’s, and now The Open Lid Ensemble’s Hypatia takes us back to Egypt in the 5th Century CE.
Both plays grow from historical fact and the actual people who made it; both employ imaginative theatrical processes to deliver narrative drive and draw insight from their subjects.
Hypatia (Kat Shaw), the Neoplatonic philosopher, mathematician and astronomer was a leading figure in the intellectual life and political disputes of Alexandria, the ancient melting-pot of ideas, ethnicities and religions, famous for its great library and schools.
And Hypatia was a woman.

It isn’t strictly true that the role of women in the Classical world precluded them from participating in its intellectual and scientific life, and neither is the claim made in this play that Hypatia has been forgotten (because “history is made by men”) Nevertheless, a remarkable person becomes even more worth remembering because of her gender.
The pagan Hypatia’s lynching by a Christian mob – the inevitable outcome and central event of the play – was the result of a complex struggle for power between the city’s Roman governor Orestes (Ann-Marie Biagioni) and its bishop, Cyril (Amanda Watson). Her appallingly ferocious murder is sometimes considered the end of classical antiquity.
The part Hypatia’s gender played in her downfall is speculative, but legitimate. The devisers and performers (including Courtney Turner and Hannah Mariah Evelyn as a student and suitor of Hypatia) focus on Hypatia as a woman, from mentality to menstruation, resulting in a portrait both confronting and inspiring.
Their work is extremely physical and intense, with movement often replacing words. This intensity is both a strength and a weakness. There’s some instability in the language of the text, and the sheer density and earnestness of the message-giving can make for hard going.
That said, Hypatia is powerfully performed (Shaw is outstanding in the title role), handsomely designed (by Chris Kydd Brain and Rhiannon Petersen) and wonderfully scored (by Michael Biagioni, who performs it live).
Above all, Hypatia’s great and awful story is well worth the re-telling.

This review appeared in The West Australian 23.9.17

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