by Alistair McDowell
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Royal Court Theatre – until 5 March 2022
The word ‘astonishing’ gets bandied about a lot, not least by me, when describing pieces of theatre, and it can sometimes feel a little like hyperbole. That is emphatically not the case with Alistair McDowell’s haunting new piece. McDowell is a playwright who repeatedly demonstrates a commendable unwillingness to fetter his imagination to the constraints of realism or what is normally represented on stage: Pluto-set outer space thriller X and his Manchester-on-steroids saga Pomona spring immediately to mind.
Director Vicky Featherstone employs a similar cinematic technique staging The Glow as she used on X, also on the main stage of the Royal Court: extraordinary, fantastical things are illuminated but briefly (Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting is thrilling) before disappearing into the dark leaving us as audience members uncertain that we’ve just seen what we thought we saw. It’s unsettling and entrancing, enhanced further by Nick Powell’s frequently eerie sound and music score, and Merle Hensel’s stark, contracting set which is blank enough to convincingly represent periods of history from prehistoric through Roman, Medieval and Victorian times to almost the present day.
If Featherstone’s accomplished, enjoyable production feels wildly imaginative, it’s only matching McDowell’s script which when in the cold light of day might sound overly fanciful and manipulative, but is, when you’re in your theatre seat, a gripping couple of hours. McDowell’s starting point is ‘The Woman In Time’, a semi-forgotten early twentieth century book by scholar Dorothy Waites that suggests that across a panoply of artistic endeavours, creatives have repeatedly used the exact same female figure as a running thread across the ages, as a social and historical commentator. Preposterous as it may be, the “what if” factor is sky high and fascinating, and that’s what McDowell goes to town with in a piece that even when it requires suspension of disbelief remains deliciously engaging and thought-provoking.
Ria Zmitrowicz’s unnamed Woman is first discovered in the darkest recesses of a Victorian asylum by spiritualist medium Evelyn Lyall (Rakie Ayola) who takes her on as a new assistant, much to the chagrin of her discomfited son (Fisayo Akinade). It pretty soon becomes clear that the Woman is possessed of powers that Lyall can only dream about, and the action of the play hurtles and ricochets through time and history as the elemental, essential nature of this Woman is revealed. McDowell’s dialogue is salty and bleakly humorous, transforming an undeniably riveting tall story into something more troubling and challenging.
Zmitrowicz and Ayola are magnificent, the former negotiating the transition from bluntly inarticulate distress to roaring, implacable divinity with exquisite power, while the latter contrasts the crisp, slightly insensitive Lyall with a moving portrait of a kindly retired nurse in the 1990s who takes the Woman in and forms a real, rare friendship with her. The men are equally fine: rising star Akinade is always exciting to watch and often very funny in a number of roles, and Tadhg Murphy makes something memorable and touching out of the Knight who goes from being the Woman’s captor to her companion in the mid 1300s.
Poetic and rambunctious, sorrowful but transporting, brutal yet tender, this is a rattling good yarn. It also potently suggests the loneliness of feeling ‘other’ from the rest of humanity, and perhaps that is it’s greatest accomplishment. If ultimately it’s too far fetched to be fully convincing, for two magical hours you may find yourself wishing it was all true. Like many a good story, it stays with you long after it’s over. I loved it.