‘Come now, come now, each woman and girl…
Take your courage, as the flames they curl.
We may burn at the hands of some men,
But from that fire we shall rise again!’
This song of the female phoenix starts and finishes the show – and on second singing, we are urged to join in. It’s time to awake our sisterhood!
Sisterhood is a three-woman show that aims to be part of the movement to ‘challenge patriarchy, create change, and begin to heal the wounds of the witch trials’. This quote is taken from the book Witch, by Lisa Lister, cited in the programme, and a major influence on the work – as are the writings of Julian of Norwich, a (female) anchorite, whose words are quoted within the play. Unsurprisingly, all bar two of the audience members are female. Perhaps men feel excluded from this conversation, but they shouldn’t do!
The setting is a church, at night. Three women have taken refuge, but it is unlikely that the marauding crowd coming for them will respect the sanctity of this sacred space as the priest is a ‘bastard’ and in cahoots with their oppressors. They are fully expecting to to be dragged away and burnt at the stake. Their sins? The older woman, Marjorie (played by Jules Craig) is a healer, knowledgable about women’s reproductive cycles and herbal remedies. She is also a Catholic, although a rather esoteric one, merging her paganism with a devotion to Mother Mary. The young one, Kitty just 20 (played by Coco Maertens), is refusing to marry the perverted old man her father has chosen for her. The middle one, Alice (company director Jolie Booth) has no children despite wanting them – perhaps that’s sin enough, and evidence of witchiness.
Settling down with a decanter of communion wine, the three women’s stories are interwoven. There are also three interludes when each actor steps out of character to tell us something about her own life, and how her circumstances echo those of her character. Jolie’s moment, for example, is a heartbreaking story of the desire to have a daughter, to continue the female line, a desire that is confounded by infertility, IVF treatment, and finally acceptance that it is not to be. I really enjoy these interludes, and find myself wishing for more interweaving of the modern day realities with the core story, which is set in the 16th century, at the height of the witch-burning frenzy.
The set is a simple one of a church pew, a stained glass window and a door. The three actors – dressed in cream and calico Tudor costumes, bonnets hiding their hair – are accompanied by an onstage musician (Sophia Craig-Daffern) who is dressed in modern pagan goddess glory – green silky dress, flowing hair, sparkles – and who sits on the floor in front of them, stage left, merging live tibetan bowl and chimes with electronic sound. The text of the play is also displayed on a screen, stage right.
There is much to like in this production. The key idea of exploring the lives of three women (the actors and the characters) at different stages of their lives – ‘none of whom are maidens, mothers or hags’ says the publicity, although of course those archetypes are honoured in the piece. The motif of menstrual blood runs through – the red communion wine, the phrase ‘I saw red’ – in celebration of the Divine Feminine, which places many things on stage, from menstruation to menopause via discussion of female fertility and infertility, that don’t get enough of an airing.
But the play itself feels a little undercooked. The script is often telling rather than showing, over-eager in its worthy desire to get across all the historical facts and points about the sisterhood that the writer wants to make. And the choice of language, the constant litany of ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, bothers me – I don’t feel that an attempt at naturalistic 16th century language is at all necessary to convey the sense that we are in this time period. I’d also love to see more exchange between contemporary thought about the Divine Feminine and modern pagan belief intertwined with the historical setting. The moments in the play when we meet the real actors behind the characters are, for me, amongst the strongest in the production, and I feel a more fluid stepping in and out of storyteller and actor roles would benefit the play.
I’d be interested in seeing a further development of the Sisterhood project that takes all this fabulous raw material beyond a straightforward play set in the past into a different format – perhaps (if it stays as a stage play) developing further how the 16th century characters and modern women relate to each other; or perhaps taking the material and ongoing research into more of the sort of brilliant installation or immersive work that Kriya Arts (the creators of Hip and the Museum of Ordinary People) have made such a name for themselves with.
A beautiful concept, a heartfelt celebration of the ‘magic chalice’ that is the womb, and evocation of the power of the Goddess. A piece brimming with stimulating ideas – not all of which are fully realised (yet), but exciting to see in progress.