SOPHIA COMPTON reviews Fury at Soho Theatre.
Claiming (on the poster) that your play is ‘a modern day Medea’ sets a high bar for judgement: Medea is the most performed Greek tragedy of the 20th Century. Fury, at Soho Theatre from 5th July to 6th August, belongs to the small group of productions that are bolstered rather than humbled by such a comparison.
In fact, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s script and Hannah Hauer-King’s dynamic staging gave spectators familiar with Euripedes’ tale of infanticide new insights into its 2,500 year-old ancestor. Reimagining the ‘barbarian’ Medea as council estate single mum Sam illuminated both women’s narratives: Sam’s characterisation comments on how working class women are ostracised and othered in contemporary London as well as building a framework in which a modern audience can understand Medea’s foreignness.
The play has remained nagging and niggling at my brain, demanding an answer to the question: can we defend or condemn Sam’s actions?
This is testament to the subtlety of the production, which was set up to prevent the audience teasing out one strand as ‘truth’. Instead we were battered with multiple conflicting, challenging (and all-too-recognisable) perspectives: cast-members vocalised thoughts you are ashamed once passed through your brain to admit and characters you didn’t like uttered snippets of truth.
The marshals of these discordant points of view were the three-man chorus, Éclair-Powell’s most impressive innovation. A ‘three-headed hydra’, they loosely corresponded to three ways of viewing Sam. Fury, who also played Sam’s spurned best-friend, was on Sam’s side, but recoiled from distressing truths. Man, also her ex, wasn’t sure. Woman, doubling up as Sam’s boss, rebuffed Sam’s protestations of innocence: as Eclair-Powell said ‘perhaps she has seen this all before and she’s tired of it’. The judging glares of this three-headed monster unsettled our bourgeoning (pre)suppositions as we watched.
Fury physicalized Medea‘s sense of entrapment and claustrophobia. As in their Greek source the chorus was always watching. Unlike their progenitors they physically intruded on the action of the story, probing and physically pursuing Sam until at one moment she snapped: ‘Just be quiet, please, just shut up, please just… just…’. Their relentless circling drove the play’s tension.
Although Sam’s assailant Tom became almost unconvincingly creepy, Sarah Ridgeway’s navigation of Sam’s contradictions was masterful. Sam is powerless both in that she is extremely vulnerable and also inadequate, to the point of criminally neglecting her responsibility to her children. Ridgeway starkly demonstrated Sam’s culpability while also, somehow, compelling the audience onto her side. Her cringing hands and inability to be still meant that her performance pulsated with frantic energy, you could feel the fissures and cracks appearing in Sam’s projection of sufficiency.
Lyn Gardner in The Guardian recently probed the disquieting phrase ‘poverty porn’, applied to several plays this year that examined the lives of Britain’s most deprived (including Boy at The Almeida and Re:Home at The Yard). Produced insensitively plays such as these can risk exploiting the life-stories of the dispossessed for the gratification of relatively wealthy theatre-goers. Fury is miles from this because of the emphasis it places on perception.
Despite one or two tricky moments in the script, the white noise of different opinions tunes into a message, heard loud and clear: Sam has been failed by us and the state. Because Eclair-Powell refuses to simplistically champion Sam as a beleaguered victim from the outset, this conclusion is qualified and self-aware. Its demands for us to care more, notice more, judge less, are all the more powerful for that.
Ultimately we realise that we cannot ask women like Sam to rise above their circumstances without help. As her response to the chorus’ provocations indicates, nobody’s idea of Sam will be as damning as her own self-perception.
In the end, who can blame her?
Fury showed at Soho Theatre up to 6 August. For more information click here: http://www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/fury/