Friday, 18 June 2021

Friday Five: More of the Women in The Odyssey

I'm in the middle of rehearsals for The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is a retelling of The Odyssey, focussing on Penelope, who was left behind while Odysseus went off to war and then travelled around having adventures rather than returning to her in a timely manner. I'm co-producing and directing the play which will be on at the Courtyard Studio in Canberra from 7-17 July. I have always loved mythology and the value of storytelling, so have thoroughly enjoyed providing a bit of context to some of the characters mentioned in the text. This is Part Two (Part One is here).

Helen of Troy (1898) by Evelyn De Morgan 

1. Helen of Troy, also known as beautiful Helen, Helen of Argos, or Helen of Sparta, was said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world. The myths relate how she was born (hatched from an egg) after Zeus 'visited' Leda (wife of Tyndareus) in the form of a swan and 'seduced' her. Helen's appearance inspired artists of all times to represent her, frequently as the personification of ideal human beauty. Images of Helen started appearing in the 7th century BC, with her abduction by Paris (or escape with him) being a popular motif.

In her youth, Helen was abducted by Theseus. He liked the look of her so with his mate Pirithous, the the king of Larissa, he went to Sparta, kidnapped Helen and brought her back to Aphidnae, a small city outside Athens, to be taken care of by his mother. Pirithous then decided he would like Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, for his wife, so the two mates popped down to Hades (the place) to kidnap her. Things didn't go so well, however, as Hades (the god) threw Theseus into prison and let his dog, Cerberus, tear Pirithous to pieces. Meanwhile, Helen's brothers, Castor and Pollux, invaded Aphidnae, rescued Helen and brought her back to Sparta.

When it was time for Helen to marry, many kings and princes from around the world came to seek her hand, bringing rich gifts with them, or sent emissaries to do so on their behalf. Menelaus, her future husband, did not attend, but sent his brother, Agamemnon, to represent him. Tyndareus was afraid to select a husband for his daughter, or send any of the suitors away, for fear of offending them and giving grounds for a quarrel. Odysseus was one of the suitors but had brought no gifts because he believed he had little chance of winning. 

Odysseus promised to solve the problem if Tyndareus would support him in his courting of Penelope, daughter of Icarius, and Tyndareus readily agreed. Odysseus proposed that, before the decision was made, all the suitors should swear a most solemn oath (known as the Oath of Tyndareus) promising to provide military assistance to the winning suitor if Helen were ever stolen from him. After the suitors all swore the oath, Menelaus was chosen as Helen's husband. For some, this marriage marks the beginning of the end of the age of heroes, as Zeus planned to obliterate the race of men and heroes in particular, using the Trojan War as the means to this end.

Cut to Paris (the Trojan prince), who was appointed by Zeus to judge some kind of Greek Goddess Beauty Competition between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Aphrodite promised Paris that if he chose her, she would reward him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, as a bribe. Surprise! Paris chose Aphrodite, and incurred the wrath of Hera and Athena, but won the prize, carrying off Helen and kicking off the Trojan War as all the sworn suitors set out to reclaim her. 

This abduction or elopement is deliberately ambiguous, depending on which side you're on and which motif you wish to pursue - in medieval illustrations this event was frequently portrayed as a seduction, whereas in Renaissance paintings it was usually depicted as a rape. This ambiguity continues through her relationship with Paris, Menelaus, and the warriors of Troy. Some tales claim Helen revelled in her fatal mischief, tormented the Greeks inside the wooden horse and rejoiced over the carnage of the Trojans; others suggest she was distraught and racked with guilt at being the cause of so much death and destruction, and was desperately lonely because so many people (particularly women) held her responsible and hated her.

According to some accounts, Greeks and Trojans gathered to stone her to death, but Menelaus demanded that only he should slay his unfaithful wife. When he saw her, however, she dropped her robe from her shoulders and the sight of her beauty caused him to let the sword drop from his hand, and the couple were reunited. 

Helen a la porte scee (1888) by Gustave Moureau

In stories, Helen is a prize; a possession; a temptress and seductress; she forces men to act a certain way and her beauty has been portrayed as potent and destructive. But here's the thing; she is always passive - things are done to her and because of her and for her, but never by her. She is born from rape, abducted, captured, stolen, rescued, contested, and never gets to tell her own story. We know that she is beautiful, but not a lot else, and if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then she is a blank canvas on which we project our own ideology. Gustave Moreau portrays her as faceless in his painting of her witnessing the destruction of Troy. 

In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood refers to Helen as "the sceptic bitch" and "poison on legs". She redresses the balance, however, in her 1995 poem, Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing, in which Helen understands that her 'beery worshippers' would like to 'watch me/ and feel nothing. Reduce me to components/ as in a clock factory or an abattoir./ Crush out the mystery./ Wall me up alive/ in my own body." If we're talking about Helen's influence on poetry and plays, we cannot ignore Chritopher Marlowe's lines from his 1604 tragedy Doctor Faustus, in which the titular character sells his soul for (among other things) a night of passion with Helen of Troy, and when he first catches sight of her remarks,

"Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!"

Odysseus Wants to Embrace the Ghost of His Mother (1901) by Jan Styka 

2. Queen Anticlea

Odysseus’ mother Anticleia is a shady character in the Odyssey; we meet her only in the Underworld, where Odysseus has gone to seek the advice of the dead prophet, Tiresias. Initially Odysseus rebuffs his mother as he is waiting for the prophet to approach, but after speaking with Tiresias, he allows Anticleia to come near and lets her speak. She asks him why he is in the underworld while alive, and he tells her about his various troubles and failed attempts to get home. Then he asks her how she died and inquires about his family at home.

Anticleia says that she died from a broken heart, longing for him while he was at war and having given up hope of ever seeing her son again. She also says that Laërtes (Odysseus' father) "grieves continually" for Odysseus and lives in a hovel in the countryside, clad in rags and sleeping on the floor. Penelope has not yet remarried but is overwhelmed with sadness and longing for her husband while Telemachus acts as magistrate for Odysseus' properties. Odysseus attempts to embrace his mother three times but discovers that she is incorporeal, and his arms simply pass through her. She explains that this is how all ghosts are, and he expresses great sorrow.

Odysseus’ futile attempt to reach out to her could be seen as an indication of his distant relationship with his mother. His warm memories of planting trees in the family’s orchard with his father is not matched by any such memories of his mother.

Ulysses Recognised by Eurycleia (1849) by Gustave Housez

3. Eurycleia

As a girl, Eurycleia was bought by Laertes, Odysseus's father. He treated her as his wife, but she was never his consumated lover, so as not to dishonour his real wife, Anticleia. She later nursed Telemachus, Odysseus's son. The name Eurycleia means 'broad fame', while Anticleia means 'anti-fame'. The tension between the meanings of their names can be seen to reflect the tebsion between the aspects of Odysseus's life.

Odysseus was born to Anticleia, a noble woman, but nursed and raised by Eurycleia, a lower-class maid. Odysseus's fame came from his role as a noble hero paralleled to his role as an anonymous beggar. His heroism was essential for capturing Troy; his skills as an orator and a schemer as well as his strength and tactics on the battlefield were instrumental in the success of the Greeks. However, he disguised himself as a beggar at critical moments, such as when he entered Troy and killed the unsuspecting Trojan soldiers, and when he returned to Ithaca and killed Penelope's suitors.

Eurycleia was the only person to recognise him without him first revealing himself (as he did to Telemachus) when he returned home after the Trojan War. She then informed him which of his servant girls had been unfaithful to Penelope during his absence, conspiring with Penelope's suitors and becoming their lovers. His son, Telemachus, hanged the twelve maids that Eurycleia identified.

Eurycleia supports Telemachus in much the same way as she had Odysseus before him, giving Telemachus provisions and supplies before he left for Pylos to seek out news of his father. She swore not to tell Penelope he had left until twelve days had passed, as Telemachus did not want his mother to be any more worried than she already was, or indeed to prevent him from going.

Some classicists argue that the woman who anoints Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is a direct reference to Eurycleia. She is the only one to recognise Jesus, and what she has done will be widely known in the same way as Eurycleia is the only one to recognise Odysseus and whose name means 'widely known'.

Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, a Roman copy of the original by Leochares circa 325BC
4. Artemis

Artemis, daughter of Zeus and Leto, is the twin sister of Apollo and a goddess of the moon. She was the patron and protector of young girls, and was believed to be able to both bring disease upon women and heal them of it. She was worshipped as one of the primary goddesses of childbirth and midwifery, and was one of the most widely venerated of the Ancient Greek deities: her temple at Ephesus was one fo the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Her Roman equivalent is Diana and she is also known as being a hunter. Homer calls her either 'Mistress of the Animals' or 'She of the Wild', and she is often referred to as 'arrow-pouring' or 'deer-shooting'. Just like her brother she may occasionally be called 'bright' or, even more illustrative of her function as a moon goddess, 'torch-bringer'. Her symbols included a bow and arrow, a quiver, and hunting knives, and the deer and the cypress were sacred to her. 

Women gods and demi-gods traditionally followed one of two paths: sultry or chaste: Artemis was definitely in the latter camp, preferring to remain a maiden and swearing never to marry. This chastity could be interpreted as cruelty or frigidity (fancy not giving her self away to anyone who desired her!) especially by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. When Actaeon stumbled upon Artemis while she was bathing, she was so enraged that he had seen her naked that she turned him into a stag and whipped his hunting dogs into a fury until they turned upon him and ripped him to pieces.

Her legacy lives on in the Artemis Program, formally begun in December 2017 under the Trump administration with the stated intention of landing the first woman on the Moon. Together with commercial and international partners, NASA intends to establish a sustainable presence on the Moon 'for private companies to build a lunar economy' (i.e. to establish commercial mining) and to prepare for missions to Mars. The scale of and motivation behind this project are quite literally out of this world. 

Calypso (1869) by Henri Lehmann

5. Calypso

If Helen of Troy is the face that launched a thousand ships, then Calypso is the name that launched almost as many products, including ships. Tributes to her come in the form of a drink (rum, peach schnapps, orange juice and grenadine), a dance, a style of music, video games, software companies, space craft, British Navy ships, an underwater camera, and a 1942 British minesweeper that was later repurposed as an oceanographic research ship operated by Jacques-Yves Cousteau.

The name means to cover, conceal or hide, and in Greek Mythology, she is a nymph who 'detained' Odysseus on the island Ogygia for seven years when he was attempting to return home to his wife, Penelope in Ithaca. In some accounts this 'detainment" resulted in two children. In others, Odysseus pines for his wife until Athena intervenes and begs her father, Zeus, to order the release of Odysseus from the island.

Zeus orders the messenger Hermes to tell Calypso to set Odysseus free, as it was not his destiny to live with her forever. She is furious and points out the double standards that allow gods to abduct females willy-nilly, but that punish goddesses who have affairs with mortals. Eventually she reluctantly concedes and sends Odysseus on his way after providing him with wine, bread and the materials for a raft. She then takes up the same position on the rock looking out to sea and pining for him, as he had previously sat longing for his Penelope.  In The Odyssey, this is the section of the adventures that begins the tale, before it plunges back into flashback, thus positioning it as an important highlight of the journey.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Misfortune; Carelessness; and...: My Sister, The Serial Killer


My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Atlantic Fiction
Pp. 226

The novella begins, “Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him. I had hoped I would never hear those words again.” Immediately we are in familiar but foreign territory. The structure is reminiscent of Charlotte Brontë’s, “Reader, I married him”, from Jane Eyre, but the shocking content is a lot less comforting. Originally published in Nigeria as an e-book entitled Thicker than Water, this tale of two sisters crosses genre lines from thriller to black comedy and socio-political commentary. As Richard Lea writes in their interview with the author (published at the end of the novel), “A novel that puts the relationship between two sisters at its heart, with men as supporting characters who may or may not make it to the final act, has been greeted as a riposte to crime fiction where the plot is so often set in motion by the gruesome death of young women.”

It clearly strikes a chord as it won the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/ Thriller, the 2020 British Book Award for Crime & Thriller Book of the Year, and it was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. As well as being critically praised, it is also popular with the public, and won the 2019 Amazon Publishing Reader’s Award for Best Debut Novel. It is certainly easy to read with short chapters (all with a one or two word title) and a fairly universal theme – we may not all have murderous siblings, but many of us understand sibling rivalry and family dynamics.

As the oldest, Korede is obliged to care for her younger sister, Ayoola, and now, she literally cleans up her sister’s messes. It doesn’t help Korede’s mental state to feel that her sister is outstandingly good-looking, and to constantly compare herself unfavourably. “The resemblance is there – we share the same mouth, the same eyes – but Ayoola looks like a Bratz doll and I resemble a voodoo figurine.”

Ayoola carries a knife on dates and she seems to have little compunction in disposing of her suitors, she claims in self-defence. Korede wants to believe her, but there is a touch of the Oscar Wilde loss of parents about her narrative; after all, she has killed three people; “Three, and they label you a serial killer”. Ayoola is seemingly remorseless and is back partying and posting on Instagram and Snapchat straight after she has killed her partner. She apparently believes that she is entirely innocent: “Her actions were the fault of her victims and she had acted as any reasonable gorgeous person would under the circumstances.” The implication is that she is excused because of her looks – it’s different if you’re beautiful.

When Ayoola shows interest in the doctor with whom Korede works, he of course reciprocates it, despite never having noticed Korede’s passionate feelings towards him. This might inform her questioning her sister’s version of events, at which Ayoola accuses her of victim shaming. “Victim? Is it mere coincidence that Ayoola has never had a mark on her, from any of these incidents with these men; not even a bruise?” At a time when we are struggling to believe women, this seems irresponsible, but education is not the duty of the author. Indeed, in her interview, Braithwaite contends, “I like to have fun. The books where I can tell I’m being taught something are a trial in the reading. If there’s a story and you learn something along the way; it’s a bonus.”

It transpires that the girls’ father subjected them to traditional and tribal cruelty, and Korede is concerned that Ayoola may have inherited some of this inherent brutality. “More and more, she reminds me of him. He could do a bad thing and behave like a model citizen right after. As though the bad thing had never happened. Is it in the blood? But his blood is my blood and my blood is hers.”

There are some things which may seem a little far-fetched for a genuine crime thriller – how could they possibly not get caught? One explanation is that the police force is highly corrupt, as are many other institutions in Nigeria, and they can be bribed to look away. Another consideration is that this is not meant to be forensically accurate. The page numbers are in a font that looks as though letters have been cut from newspaper print, or perhaps a graphic novel where all the information is condensed into one frame. It is currently being considered for film, which will be dramatic but not exactly realistic.

Oyinkan Braithwaite has provided us with a fast-paced, high-actioned, black-comedy crime thriller. It covers a lot of genres and is a terrific story. It seems churlish to expect more from her and we should be grateful for this offering and the knowledge that there are authors who can still deliver a gripping novel.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Life's Nourishment: Milk by Dylan Van Den Berg

Dylan Van Den Berg, Katie Beckett and Roxanne McDonald in Milk

Milk by Dylan Van Den Berg

Directed by Ginny Savage
The Street Theatre
3 -12 June, 2021

The theatre is a forum for sharing stories; exploring the past; questioning the present; and preparing for the future. ‘Milk’ does all of the above with superb staging and atmospheric sound and lighting featuring pivotal moments in liminal spaces, directed with depth and nuance by Ginny Savage.

We are taken to a metaphysical Flinders Island off the coast of Tasmania, which is created instantly through imagery and sound (Peter Bailey) – the wind is a constant presence. The design of the rock-strewn stage (Imogen Keen) is evocative and versatile; piles of stones can be interpreted as cairns and path-markers, burial sites and weapons. Ranging in size they indicate the passage of time through erosion, and they can be put in a pocket and transplanted to another time and place.

Spanning two centuries the play tracks the conversation between three Aboriginal ancestors coming together on the verge of life-changing moments. The characters are nameless – known only as Character A, B, and C – which suggests a blending of personalities and continuation of stories. Playwright and Character C, Dylan Van Den Berg has just become a father, which has made him introspective. He wants to know where he came from and what he might be passing on to a future generation.

Character A (Roxanne McDonald) and Character C (Dylan Van Den Berg) 

He and the other characters, A (Roxanne McDonald) and B (Katie Beckett), attempt to reconcile what came before invasion and colonisation of Tasmania with what is yet to come. Roxanne McDonald (portraying an old woman from the 1840s) tells her story with honesty and heartbreaking integrity. While the horror and violence of the past is not dwelt upon, there are certainly uncomfortable scenes and a few tears were shed in the audience. A note in the programme reminds us that “a group of Palawa people, mostly women, were removed from their country and taken to the Bass Strait Islands in the early-to-mid 1800s. They were sold, bartered, and gifted as ‘wives’ to the white sealers who lived there.”

Katie Beckett plays Character C’s grandmother, although the actors are similar in age, which leads to an intimacy and shared understanding of identity. The difference is that “You’re lucky with that milky skin. You get no trouble. You get to carry it all on the inside – all the knowledge. Some of us gotta carry it on the outside for everyone to see.” Character B is a middle-aged woman from the 1960s who is attempting to find fun and explore the world through various encounters and relationships, while refusing to be confined by convention. 

Katie Beckett as Character B

Through outstanding physicality, the actors all embody greatly varying experiences and shifts of mood that are entirely convincing and utterly compelling. The costumes, also by Imogen Keen, are designed to accentuate the details of their circumstances, from the rough-looking, sturdy coverings, fashioned like a blanket, of Character A, to the impractical and uncomfortable shiny fabric worn by Character B as she prepares to go on a date and sell herself as something she is not – “I’m a natural blonde, baby… this is just a dye-job.”

They progress and move past grief, shame and self-loathing by literally picking themselves up and carrying on. Lighting by Gerry Corcoran illuminates, defines and conceals spaces in intriguing ways that create conversation. We all have blind spots in our family history, but learning about the past can inform our present and teach us to be more compassionate towards the people around us.

It is apt that Milk opened in a world premiere during Reconciliation Week. It may be a personal story about loss and survival, but it asks us all to question our heritage and to consider our relationship to the land we live on. Again, the programme notes that, “For many years it was said that the Palawa people were ‘extinct’. White history has swallowed our stories. This is just one of many.” A lot of stories and knowledge have been lost through lack of sharing, but in the words of character C, “It’s all out there. Even the stuff we think is gone. We just – have to listen. We just – have to dance.”

This play is stunning and heartfelt. It is personal and it is broader than one man’s story. It affects all of us, as it should. See it; feel it; share it. That is all.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Neuroscience Meets Mindfulness: Hardwiring Happiness


Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson
Rider
Pp. 223

Being good to yourself has benefits for everyone, and for the entire planet. That’s quite a grand claim, but Rick Hanson, “a father, husband, psychologist, meditation teacher and business consultant” makes a concerted effort to help everyone do just that. He sets out to show us how to retrain the brain to focus on positivity rather than negativity, which is actually not our brain’s natural and default setting. The balance between science and practicality is fair, and Hanson correctly states, “You won’t need a background in neuroscience or psychology to understand these ideas.”

He has handily distilled his practice down to four simple steps “with the acronym HEAL: Have a positive experience. Enrich it. Absorb it. Link positive and negative material so that positive soothes and even replaces negative. (The fourth step is optional.)” Every new technique seemingly has to have an acronym, and this is a good one. He introduces concepts with analogies and anecdotes, including side tables to condense the information, and a section at the end of each chapter called ‘Taking It In’ that summarises the key points. He includes a table that the reader can print and then fill in with their own experiences that they want to affirm, and there are reference notes and a bibliography later in the book for further study. He even includes a section explaining how to use these steps with children, “while naturally adapting them to the child’s age and situation.”

The basic premise is simple: the brain has a built-in negativity bias to pay more attention to the bad than the good. This is a survival technique because the bad can kill you; the formation of implicit memory is negatively biased, to make us avoid harmful things or, as Hanson puts it, “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

With advice that borrows a lot from Buddhist teachings, Hanson recommends that we focus on the positive and open our mind and body to happiness and good feelings. He describes how to sit and be with positivity, cultivate inner strengths, and absorb good feelings so that they can be recalled in other situations and used to calm and focus. He is keen to encourage feeling good in the moment and taking in the good through simple experiences like looking out of the window or eating an orange. It may all sound a bit Little Book of Calm, but if increased positivity is good for you, why not give it a try?

He focuses on ‘feeling all right, right now’, which he considers to be one of the greatest strengths, and supports experiencing something as it is rather than grasping after it or wanting more – “let sensations come to you rather than reaching for them”. An experience is made more powerful by being particular to a person and linked to their good memories. Hanson encourages holding onto this pleasant feeling to be able to more easily recall it later, through multimodality; sensing good experiences throughout the whole body and being aware of as many aspects of it as possible.

Although much of this sounds rather pleasant, we still have the capability to resist it, so Hanson isolates these negative blockers to our potential happiness. Some may argue that employing this positivity method is simply denial, but Hanson counters, “You’re not looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, but rather correcting your brain’s tendency to look at it through smog-tinted ones.” Another specific blocker is the belief that there’s no point in feeling good since some things are still bad. Even a little bit of good will increase happiness: you can take a slice of the pie without waiting or wanting to have the whole thing. It is up to us to learn to enjoy experience, and Hanson is aware that this may be difficult, so he brings it home by appealing to our morals and contemporary ethics. “The fearful, greedy and self-centred reactive setting of the brain promotes a kind of gorging of the earth’s limited resources that is causing deforestation, mass extinctions, and global warming.”

He has crafted such a framework that it is morally questionable not to look after ourselves by accepting more happiness into our life and brain. He has supplied a very straightforward and practical manual outlining how to achieve this goal in which neuroscience meets mindfulness. And if he has made some money along the way, well good for him; I have no feelings of envy or resentment. See, it’s working already.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Friday Five: The Shows Go On

As mentioned in a previous post, I am trying to see as much theatre as I can, dependent on my other commitments, and I shall try to report back (in chronological order of viewing).

5 Shows Seen So Far This Year:

  1. Animal Farm - shake & stir theatre co., The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre: This is an absolutely fantastic interpretation of one of my favourite novels. People are falling over themselves to draw parallels between the Trump administration and the propaganda within the play - but it remains as firmly rooted as ever in Orwell's concerns about communist doublespeak. The ensemble of actors portray all the anthropomorphosised animals with excellent gestures and expressionism, maintaining an outstanding physicality throughout. The set is bleak and brilliant in equal measure. Lighting and sound blend artfully into the overall presentation and despite the grim truths of the production, there are still laugh-out-loud moments - the hen rebellion is dealt with humour until it suddenly isn't, and the transformation of beasts into men and back again is wry and poignant. A teacher of year eights (13-14) said her class went to see it and were disappointed that it didn't feature real animals. I never thought I'd say this, but sometimes theatre is wasted on the young.
  2. Don Juan - A Slightly Isolated Dog, Bicentennial Hall, Queanbeyan: Pretending to be a famous French theatre troupe - 'We are very famous' 'And very French' gives this Kiwi ensemble of five actors the perfect opportunity to have fun with flamboyant stereotypes and outrageous accents. Theirs is a modern and collaborative approach and they encourage photos, which they then later share through their social media channels - direct marketing for the non-traditional theatre goers. Through a mixture of audience interaction (nothing confronting), song, dance, visual interpretations (a boat tossed on a stormy sea is a cardboard box on a tarpaulin, shaken about by the audience), and a voice distortion box, we learn a different side to Don Juan from any we had previously known. It is engaging and great fun for a cold mid-week night, reminding us why we need to get back into performance spaces.
  3. A German Life - The Gordon Frost Organisation, The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre: Robyn Nevin delivers this fantastic script by Christopher Hampton as if she were born to play this role. Brunhilde Pomsel is an unassuming woman with good shorthand skills who, almost by chance, came to work in Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. She survived the war and its aftermath (after five years in prison) and now, near the end of her life and in a nursing home, she recounts what she recalls of those days. The sparsely furnished room for an elderly resident throws up echoes of incarceration while projections of Nazi rallies, mass evacuations, ruined cities and concentration camps, are starkly presented in black and white on the walls for all to see. It is disturbingly intimate and asks us to question how much we think she knew (every time she denies knowledge, she stumbles over her words or questions her receding memory) and what would we honestly do in her situation. Neil Armfield directs one woman to capture our attention throughout the running time, and the play raises many questions about personal responsibility, communal culpability and the veracity of memory. She opines, "Nowadays, I don’t think people would be stupid enough to fall for the kind of nonsense we fell for. All that hot air, I don’t think you can get that past people anymore.” Well, the audience all felt uncomfortable at that moment - apart from the smug ones who missed the point.
  4. Jekyll & Hyde - A Slightly Isolated Dog, Bicentennial Hall, Queanbeyan: And we're back for more from A Slightly Isolated Dog who bring their seemingly chaotic but totally controlled performance style to the story of Jekyll and Hyde. All of the ensemble get a go at being the man with a dark side within ('but he pushes it down') donning a wig and glasses to play the evil alter-ego, but their physicality is more important than their props and they literally embody character acting. The sound and lighting production is excellent and the timing is superb - it takes a lot of hard work to make something look this effortless, and they are a joy to watch. Both this and the previous offering are conducted in traverse staging, drawing the audience into the unfolding drama in a non-confrontational manner; the performances are short and leave the audience laughing and wanting more - they are a triumph.
  5. Little Girls Alone in the Woods - Canberra Youth Theatre, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre: The Bacchae by Euripides is an ancient Greek drama which has captured imaginations for years, and lent itself to many interpretations as playwrights, authors, composers and directors seek to assign meaning and moral to a tale of violence, cynicism, divination and control. Among others Joe Orton, Caryl Churchill, Ingmar Bergman, Brian De Palma, Wole Soyinka, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gustav Holst, Thomas Mann and Henrik Ibsen have pondered the dichotomy between protection and imprisonment. Morgan Rose views the cult and legend of Dionysus through a feminist lens as her play suggests that young women are disappearing into the wilds of the woods to cavort and rebel against the confines of the patriarchy. Luke Rogers directs this version with a large cast of varying ability, and he is adept at playing to their strengths. Some of the ensemble work is excellent as the actors work together with both movement and voice, but when they try to stand out and compete against each other, it becomes discordant and incomprehensible. Whether they are lounging about in a study group preparing for exams and completing assignments on their laptops, or play fighting in pyjamas with pillows, they portray the messiness of youth that some adults try to streamline and corral. Change, transition, adolescence, questions and exploration can be uncomfortable for those who want to control, such as the police force who issue tagging bracelets that all females must wear for their own safety, to prevent them from going astray. The staging is bold with a man-made metal cage-like structure hinting of capture and confinement from a prison to a zoo, and as the action spills off the set into the audience space it suggests that our wilderness could either be part of the problem or a solution. Sound and lights are incorporated well to highlight some of the more confrontational aspects of isolation and power imbalance, although the musical ending doesn't pack the punch that perhaps it hoped it would. In general, this is a highly promising piece of work that delivers a deliberate sense of unease.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Women's Health Matters: Pain and Prejudice


Pain and Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson
Allen & Unwin
Pp. 321

Subtitled ‘A Call to Arms for Women and Their Bodies’, this book focuses on how women have been badly treated by the medical profession in the ‘Western World’ (there are many studies, figures and reports, all from the UK, the USA, Australia and New Zealand) and suggests that the times are ripe for revolution. It centres on the fact that medicine was traditionally a male profession and that the male was considered the default, so the difference in women was barely acknowledged let alone appreciated. In a similar line to that taken by Caroline Criado Perez in her book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Jackson argues that women are being ignored at best and killed at worst due to this gender bias in medicine.

In general women live longer than men, but they are in more pain. They are not taught to know their bodies or talk about their ailments; they are meant to nurture and support others before themselves. Women aren’t accustomed to discussing ‘female ailments’ – menstruation, menopause and sexual pain are still relatively taboo topics. Many women can’t identify their reproductive organs on a diagram and are certainly not meant to talk about them, as it is considered shameful. An influential study by Melissa Parker on Australian girls found that 93% of them experienced some period pain. About 20% experience severe pain, 24% say their period interferes with four out of nine life activities, and 26% miss school because of pain. “So a quarter of girls are missing school because of pain, and nobody thinks it’s a problem?”

When women demand attention, over their health or issues of equality, they are often labelled as hysterical, and “As an insult, ‘hysterical is still disarmingly effective.” Yet, when men present with the exact same symptoms, it is called shellshock or PTSD. Traditionally medicine was a male profession, and women are often not believed about their own health. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, “medicine became an elite profession and took over from religious institutions as the primary enforcers of the social roles of women.”

Because the default case study for all ailments is male, “We assume that the ways in which women are different from men must be the ways in which women are inferior or broken or diseased when in fact it might be that women are just different.” Symptoms of heart attacks are different in women and often misdiagnosed. A World Health Organisation report explains, “It has traditionally been thought of as a man’s disease which has led to deadly consequences for women – in 2004, 7.4 million women over 60 years of age died of cardiovascular disease compared with 6.3 million men.” Stress is a factor in heart disease, but women are often dismissed as suffering from nothing but anxiety when men who present with the same symptoms are diagnosed with heart disease.

Before 1993 there was no legal requirement to include women in clinical trials 

Many clinical tests only use men in their trials, which can prove fatal to women. In 1993, the US Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health mandated the inclusion of women in clinical trials. Before then, trials were routinely carried out on men only, including: a twenty-year longitudinal study (began in 1958) to explore whether taking an aspirin every day could reduce the risk of heart disease (conducted in 22,071 men and no women); a 1982 trial looking at whether dietary change and exercise could help prevent heart disease (conducted in 13,000 men and no women), and even a trial in the 1960s to investigate whether supplementation with oestrogen was an effective preventive treatment for heart disease (conducted in 8341 men, and no women).

Women generally experience more chronic pain than men – they suffer pains that cannot be seen, so they are often discounted, and pelvic pain is “also beset by stigmas and taboos that make it difficult for women to talk about their sex organs or anything related to them.” When women are believed about experiencing pain, they are often thought to be exaggerating. “Even female doctors, after training and working in the heavily masculinised medical culture, can view this language as confronting and histrionic.”

Women suffer more chronic pain than men

There are several overlapping pain conditions and women who suffer from one are likely to also suffer from others. These include endometriosis; vulvodynia; fibromyalgia; chronic fatigue syndrome/ myalgic encephalomyelitis; interstitial cystitis/ painful bladder syndrome; temporomandibular joint disorders; irritable bowel syndrome; chronic tension-type headache; chronic migraine and chronic low back pain. “Chronic pain conditions aren’t conditions that kill us but they radically alter our opportunities to reach our full potential in life… Pain doesn’t actually kill people – it keeps women in the home and out of work, which has no effect upon the power structures of society, providing no incentive for action.”

Doctors don’t really want to see patients who are difficult to diagnose and harder to fix as it looks bad for their figures and solved statistics: they even call them ‘heart-sink patients’. Women are aware of this stigma, and when they are told they have medically unexplained symptoms, anxiety, depression or are disbelieved, they can move from doctor to doctor in order to find a diagnosis or treatment relief. “In an exasperating development, ‘doctor-shopping’ has come to be seen as an indicator that pain is made up, rather than a result of pain doctors won’t believe.”

Women’s pain is not treated as seriously as men’s pain, and Jackson suggests that women should not simply accept this, but educate themselves about their bodies and demand that they be treated with equal funding and respect. It would be a brave and/or stupid person who would argue with that.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Friday Five: Depictions of the Greek Underworld

I have been exploring the Greek underworld - not literally, obviously - but because The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, the play I am directing and co-producing, is partially set there.

The underworld itself - sometimes known as Hades, after its patron god - is described as being either at the outer bounds of the ocean or beneath the depths or ends of the earth. It is considered the dark counterpart to the brightness of Mount Olympus with the kingdom of the dead corresponding to the kingdom of the gods. The Underworld is a realm invisible to the living, made solely for the dead.

Landscape with Charon crossing the Styx by Joachim Patinir

The Greeks had a definite belief that there was a journey to the afterlife or another world. They believed that death was not a complete end to life or human existence.

In the Greek underworld, the souls of the dead still existed, but they are insubstantial, and flitted around the underworld with no sense of purpose. The Greeks accepted the existence of the soul after death, but saw this afterlife as meaningless. In the underworld, the identity of a dead person still existed, but it had no strength or true influence. The dead within the Homeric underworld lack menos,or strength, and therefore they cannot influence those on earth. They also lack phrenes, or wit, and are heedless of what goes on around them and on the earth above them. Their lives in the underworld were very neutral, so all social statuses and political positions were eliminated and no one was able to use their previous lives to their advantage in the underworld.

Generally speaking, the Greek Underworld can be thought of as being made up of three different regions; Tartarus, the Asphodel Meadows and Elysium.

An alternative view of the London Underground tube map by the Iris Project

While Tartarus is not considered to be directly a part of the underworld, it is described as being as far beneath the underworld as the earth is beneath the sky. It was thought to be the deepest region of the Underworld, ad a place where it would take an anvil nine days to reach if allowed to fall from the rest of the Underworld. It is so dark that the “night is poured around it in three rows like a collar round the neck, while above it grows the roots of the earth and of the unharvested sea.” – Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death

Tartarus is the region of the Underworld normally associated with hell, and was the area where imprisonment and punishment was undertaken; as such it was the normal location of the imprisoned Titans, Tantalus, Ixion and Sisyphus. Zeus cast the Titans along with his father Cronus into Tartarus after defeating them. Homer wrote that Cronus then became the king of Tartarus. While Odysseus does not see the Titans himself, he mentions some of the people within the underworld who are experiencing punishment for their sins.

Aneas and Sibyl in the Underworld by Jan Brueghel the Younger
The Asphodel Meadows was a place for ordinary or indifferent souls who did not commit any significant crimes, but who also did not achieve any greatness or recognition that would warrant them being admitted to the Elysian Fields. It was where mortals who did not belong anywhere else in the underworld were sent. It was where the majority of the deceased would end up, for it was the region of indifference. Having drunk from the River Lethe the deceased located here would forget their previous lives, but would spend eternity in a greyness of mindlessness.

While in the underworld, the dead passed the time through simple pastimes such as playing games, as shown from objects found in tombs such as dice and game-boards. Grave gifts such as clothing, jewellery, and food were left by the living for use in the underworld as well, since many viewed these gifts to carry over into the underworld. There was not a general consensus as to whether the dead were able to consume food or not. Homer depicted the dead as unable to eat or drink unless they had been summoned; however, some reliefs portray the underworld as having many elaborate feasts. While not completely clear, it is implied that the dead could still have sexual intimacy with another, although no children were produced. The Greeks also showed belief in the possibility of marriage in the underworld, which in a sense describes the Greek underworld having no difference than from their current life.

Fields of Asphodel by Brian Doers
Elysium, or the Elysian Fields, was a place for the especially distinguished. It was ruled over by Rhadamanthus, and the souls that dwelled there had an easy afterlife and would spend an eternity of pleasure free from work and strife. Usually, those who had proximity to the gods were granted admission, rather than those who were especially righteous or had ethical merit, however, later on, those who were pure and righteous were considered to reside in Elysium. Most accepted to Elysium were demigods or heroes. Heroes such as Cadmus, Peleus, and Achilles also were transported here after their deaths. Normal people who lived righteous and virtuous lives could also gain entrance such as Socrates who proved his worth sufficiently through philosophy. It is the region of the Underworld where mortals were supposed to aspire to and the most closely associated with paradise.

The Waters of Lethe by the Plains of Elysium by John Rodham Spencer-Stanhope

The idea of progress did not exist in the Greek underworld – at the moment of death, the psyche was frozen, in experience and appearance. The souls in the underworld did not age or really change in any sense. They did not lead any sort of active life in the underworld – they were exactly the same as they were in life. Therefore, those who had died in battle were eternally blood-spattered in the underworld and those who had died peacefully were able to remain that way.

Overall, the Greek dead were considered to be irritable and unpleasant, but not dangerous or malevolent. They grew angry if they felt a hostile presence near their graves and drink offerings were given in order to appease them so as not to anger the dead. Mostly, blood offerings were given, because they needed the essence of life to become communicative and conscious again. This is shown in Homer's Odyssey, where Odysseus had to give blood in order for the souls to interact with him.

Hades itself was free from the concept of time. The dead are aware of both the past and the future, and in poems describing Greek heroes, the dead helped move the plot of the story by prophesying and telling truths unknown to the hero. The only way for humans to communicate with the dead was to suspend time and their normal life to reach Hades, the place beyond immediate perception and human time.

It sounds as though social strata was rigidly imposed even back then and even in death.