Photographs of A, one of the NEON festival of independent theatre season productions, is essentially a one-woman play, written by Daniel Keene and here produced by him with Antechamber Productions. It is directed by Brian Lipson and performed by the redoubtable Helen Morse.
The narrative is based on the life of a young woman called Louise Augustine Gleises who became famous in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. Suffering from what was known at the time as ‘female hysteria’, (in most cases it was the result of sexual frustration); she was exhibited by Doctor Jean-Martin Charcot (who became known as the ‘father of modern neurology’) in public in order to enhance his career and standing. Not only was Gleises – usually referred to as ‘A’ just to reinforce her objectification – displayed in a supposedly legitimate medical version of a freak show, she was also repeatedly photographed while in the throes of her famous turns of ‘suffering’. People came back to watch her over again. The opening of the play involves the repetition of instructions to not touch or in any way discourse with the performer, reminding us of the appalling objectification of this subject’s life and how that here we are implicit in an act of voyeurism by sheer virtue of being an audience. This case is overstated, though. The set is lovely, with its use of rows of tea lights lit and extinguished along the way to highlight the subtle shifts in story. There is an iron bed and a chair on different levels to delineate private and public space. Morse is often lit from beneath which effectively creates an impression of otherness and otherworldliness.
Morse delivers a first person set of lengthy monologues which give us an insight into the mind of this unfortunate young woman. Moments of self-awareness, where ‘A’ understands the co-dependent relationship that’s developed between herself and Charcot, and her understanding of how she performs on cue, provide the few funny moments in the text; a relief, it has to be said. Morse is so powerful a performer that she carries single-handedly a long and seemingly repetitive work of theatre; she’s the reason I didn’t fall asleep. Ben Grant as the good doctor and a very good young Anouk Gleeson-Mead support Morse in mostly silent performances.
I came away with the same feeling as I had the last time I saw a play by Keene: impressed but unmoved. The writing is beautiful but bloodless. Not enough happens; this work would have been so much more interesting with a more developed dynamic between ‘A’ and the doctor. Instead, in a worthy effort to eschew spectacle, it’s nearly all words, frustrating when you have three bodies on the stage.
Antechamber Productions & Daniel Keene present
Photographs of A
by Daniel Keene
Director Brian Lipson
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Lawler
Dates: 26 June – 6 July, 2014
Part of the 2014 NEON Festival