No Place for a Woman’s treatment of mental health strikes a chord with Samuel Sims
After gaining considerable praise for The Stolen Inches, which sold out at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2015, The Small Things Theatre Company return with their latest production, No Place for a Woman at Battersea’s Theatre503. Formed by Philip Scott-Wallace and Cordelia O’Neill, the company aspires to delight, fascinate and challenge by producing new theatre from emerging artists, as well as helping to nurture and provide a platform for them.
In No Place for a Woman O’Neill has written a piece with intense melodramatics, made all the more so by having just two actors and powerful, thought-provoking dialogue spilling out from the minute stage. Strong themes such as mental health are delved into from more than one perspective, as are rape, the ramifications of marital neglect and the horrific violence of war.
The play is set in Poland, 1945, at the end of the Second World War and two women, Isabella (Emma Paetz) and Annie (Ruth Gemmell) are being interviewed by the Allied Forces. Isabella is a dancer who is living in a prison camp until she is torn away from her family and forced to perform at the party of an officer’s wife, Annie. Initially, the story is an ambiguous one and as we see Isabella begin to tell the audience about ballet school and jovially forcing her family to leap around their home in order to stay warm, it isn’t so clear she is talking of her past and especially that she is being interrogated.
We learn of what happens after the party, of her captivity and the strange relationship she forms with Annie’s husband. We don’t see him, but we find out he suffers profoundly from his immoral and disturbing actions. Annie visibly lacks her own identity and although she has two young children, seems to exist purely for her partner. She is threatened deeply by Isabella’s presence and Annie’s desperate need for approval spirals into an ultimately bizarre act of self-imprisonment. This where the play especially addresses the subject of mental health. Annie is shown to the audience as a very unhappy woman, but only we see how her thoughts and actions mount up to a much larger issue. We feel her helplessness but we are unable to help.
Whilst No Place for a Woman is essentially a duologue, it often feels like you are actually the voyeur of two monologues. When the characters do overlap, aesthetically it is effective but it is easy to become lost. There is also some confusion too when the characters are removed from the story, or the past, and placed in the present when they are being interrogated. It becomes difficult to fathom whether the voice and point of view of the play has changed from that of the two women to another’s.
Music comes from Elliot Rennie, whose sneaky position behind the stage creates a wonderful effect but keeps the focus on Paetz and Gemmell. His beautiful composition acts as an additional arc to the story with many of the notes he plays manipulated by the actors into such things as a heartbeat. Kate Budgen’s direction ensures both women’s tales are significantly well-formed during the play’s 75 minute run-time. Whilst the audience’s attention can become misplaced with the relentless amount occurring on stage, both Budgen’s work and Sarah Readman’s lighting still maintain the necessary drama and emotion needed to make No Place to be a Woman a powerful piece of theatre.
Gemmell, who has most recently starred in Sky’s Penny Dreadful, has exceptional presence and conviction. She is utterly believable as Annie, a thoroughly unpleasant but sincerely sympathetic woman and works wonderfully against Paetz, who also conquers a character with a multi-layered and difficult history. The play’s ability to capture the audience and take them to a very specific moment in time with such detail has to be credited for the most part to the fantastic performances.
Mental health is not discussed explicitly, though it is a strong theme of the play. Annie’s symptoms are not taken quite as seriously by the people around her as they would be now. They are also simply misunderstood. Her behaviour and placement towards the end of the play are reminiscent of the ‘mad’ Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, who is locked away to try and contain violent and challenging behaviour which does not fit with the passive feminine ideal of the time. The woman’s place is especially clear here and with Annie’s continued obsession with being told she is beautiful, there is a suggestion that once this fades she will consider herself worthless: an animal undeserving of love. Annie’s inability to connect with her children and what appears to be an abandonment of them through the eyes of the audience could be interpreted as postnatal depression. This is not explicitly stated by O’ Neil but an interesting way to see mental health again addressed in No Place for a Woman.
As Annie repeatedly utters: “I could have been a dancer”, whilst her younger, more athletically accomplished counterpart seems to unconsciously stamp on her ability to ever have achieved this dream, we are shown the effects of age. Whilst the fact that Annie is older should not be any kind of issue, O’Neill makes the audience aware that unfortunately in this context, it is. Annie’s potential has been wiped away simply because she is of a certain age; she is no longer seen as worthy to have these aspirations by her husband and by the society she seems so intent on pleasing. It is a damning look at the way many women have had to sacrifice their dreams.
Society still does not view mental illness in the open-minded and empathic way it should and No Place for a Woman highlights the socio-political plight of women with regards to this issue. Ultimately, the strength of the actors, heartbreaking characters and excellent dialogue show that despite having a long way to go with regards to women’s rights and mental health, we have made considerable headway since 1945.
No Place for a Woman plays until 27 May at Theatre503.
The image is a photograph of Emma Paetz as Isabella and Ruth Gemmell as Annie in No Place for a Woman, credit Jack Sain. Annie is on the right of the photograph and is holding Isabella’s arm as she washes it. The women look to each other and Isabella looks as if she might be alarmed. They both wear simple vests with bare arms and have their long hair in half ponytails. Behind them is darkness.