“You tink it normal you wifing some dirty self-proclaimed general in de bush? You tink it normal a boy carrying a gun killing and raping? You tink it okay dere no more schools, no more NOTIN!”
In 2003, Liberia was in the fourth year of its second civil war, the first having only ended in 1997 with cumulative casualties estimated to have reached over half a million. It is the context of this situation that Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed visits four young women sequestered on a rebel army base as the wives of the resident C.O. and explores the choices that they’ve been forced to make in order to survive. The intimacy of the Gate naturally lends itself to intense theatrical experiences but Caroline Byrne’s production here captures something equal parts raw and refreshing in both its uncompromisingly Liberian-accented subject and its forthright sincerity.
It’s refreshing because the Zimbabwean-American Gurira’s writing stems from an innate desire to understand character and even though the four women have been reduced to naming each other in the order they were ‘betrothed’ to the unseen general, they’re all written beautifully. As the dominant mother figure, No 1 runs as tightly regimented a ship as the man who no longer sexually desires her, No 2 took the only escape route available, joining the ranks of the soldiers leaving No 3 to bear the brunt of the amorous intentions, leaving her pregnant. The arrival of a frightened No 4 forces a change in the group’s dynamics though, as each woman struggles to assert their position.
And it’s raw because there’s such an abundance of naked feeling on Chiara Stephenson’s tight thrust stage. Not just in the performances of the two stage debutants here but across all five women. Letitia Wright (so good in Cucumber recently) is just devastating as the impressionable No 4, torn between following No 1 and No 2 and delivering a shattering sequence once her decision is made that is simply terrifying in its force. Faith Alabi equally chills the soul as No 2, the one who has swapped subservience for violence at substantial cost and whilst Joan Iyiola’s No 3 may superficially appear the cheeriest of the bunch, her pleasantly vacant demeanour depicts the tragedy of a woman who has shut down so much of herself as a protective cocoon.
The contrasting subplot of Rita encouraging No 1 to learn to read initially feels a little heavy-handed in its direct dichotomy to picking up a gun as a way out but the way in which it allows Michelle Asante to show us the agonising arrival of a spark of hope to No 1’s existence is beautifully done, especially coming from the exquisite compassion that pours forth from T’Nia Miller’s Rita (another Cucumber/Banana alumna), a middle-class humanitarian worker working to broker peace in their country and help liberate these women, even through the simple act of helping them to remember their given names.
And that act of reclaiming their birth names grows to become something enormously powerful and yet still more difficult than we could ever comprehend. So too the ending – almost harsh in its abruptness – which serves to show the depth of the damage that war has exacted on these women, the ambivalence that a future full of uncertainty now holds, a world where the word peace is just another promise too easily broken. Fiercely essential theatre.