- Gareth K Vile
- 3 February 2020
A harrowing tale that relies on language and sound
Based on the experiences of US soldier Danna Davis, Mary Jane Wells' script opens up a series of profound questions, from the treatment of lesbian women in the North American military, the traumatic consequences of sexual assault to theatre's potential as a forum for the important social discussions provoked by the production. Performed by Wells and enhanced by Matt Padden's sound design, Heroine is a gruelling exploration of how society can create the perfect storm of alienation, deceit and disapproval to silence those that refuse to conform to dominant identities.
Supported by the presence of a safe space for anyone affected by the details of rape or familial homophobia, and with two counsellors available after the performance, Heroine takes its responsibilities to both Davis and the audience seriously: despite being rooted in lived experience, the plot provokes more abstract conversations about the treatment of women and the refusal of authority to address the consequences of systemic oppression. After Davis has been assaulted by three male soldiers, she is unable to report the crime because she had been abducted from a gay nightclub: the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy of Clinton's government clearly revealed as a way of silencing, not including. The subsequent death of her lover in combat is hushed up and Davis is again threatened with exposure, leading to her departure from the military. The character of Davis is depicted trying to grapple with her PTSD. After the vivid descriptions of the assault and combat situations, much of the story examines Davis' internal conflicts.
Since the production is further furnished by post-show discussions, both Wells and director Susan Worsfold emphasis the social importance of the subject, and the conclusion, with Davis making tentative steps to recovery after descending to suicidal impulses, offers hope without excusing the behaviour of North American society. Both therapy and family are useless in her recovery, and the isolation of one woman becomes representative of individuals oppressed due to their gender or sexuality.
Yet the promise of an audiobook version of the play is telling: the minimalist dramaturgy, which betrays the production's origins in the Edinburgh Fringe, makes little use of theatre's visual dimensions and the literary virtues of the script are not supplemented by any powerful physicality or imaginative scenography. The immediacy of performance is used to gather together an audience, and engage a specific community, but the impact leans on the detail of Davis' biography and not on theatre's potential to combine emotive and intellectual power. Mary Jane Wells offers a strong solo performance, but cannot overcome a script that relies on telling, rather than showing or evoking, dramatic moments.
Clearly, Heroine explores vital issues that question the inclusive pieties of North American – and by extension, Western democratic – civilisation, while it leans into its authenticity and the horror of Davis' experience to develop a dynamic and emotive narrative. In its poetic and literary turn, however, it squanders the possibilities of performance to enhance its meaning. Fortunately, the company's sensitivity to contextualising the event through its safe space and post-show support suggests that there are other ways to take advantage of theatre's unique liveness.
Reviewed at Traverse, Edinburgh. Now touring in North America.