Power Play’s mission is to address gender inequality in fringe and grassroots theatre. It is no small task. They begin this mission by staging four plays in a flat in Edinburgh. It’s a humble beginning but it is a start nonetheless. A huge yellow banner stands on the steps outside the door to the flat. They echo the Guerrilla Girls, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger; feminist artists who have protested the injustices of the world through words. The words are outside on huge flashy banners but they are also inside, waiting on the lips of women waiting to tell their stories.
I saw two Power Play shows in a row, and although they are hugely different pieces, they took place in the same flat, and it feels natural to talk about them together. The first was Somebody, written by Matilda Curtis and performed by Dani Moseley. Moseley’s performance is sincere and intimate – in the time it takes us to do a circuit of the flat, I feel like she’s my friend. The story follows a millennial woman struggling with motherhood and identity. Her opinions and relationships with other people seem to change with every new room we enter. Time edges backwards as the audience are led through the spacious flat. She is 27, then 22, 16, 10. Time moves fluidly and without restraint, nothing is linear. The script inches towards an unsaid trauma – the audience are not quite sure what it is. Each time it appears to be reached, the time shifts again and a new clue appears. We finally get to the epicentre in a corner bedroom, and it sort of feels like we got here by accident. Moseley directs us as best she can, performing with consistency and truth, but the character of ‘Girl’ seems not solid at all, and instead slippery and an unreliable narrator of her own story.
Relationships circle each other, and shift in and out of focus. Often these relationships are left a little foggy around the edges, to the detriment of the narrative. The relationship between the central woman and her best friend was the most interesting. Competitive and slightly snide, there was talk of a forgotten bond between them. But this bond was never evidenced, and all we saw were glimpses of jealousy. A lack of solidarity seems an odd message to end on, and somehow it’s jarring. Moseley’s character and her body have the most painful relationship. Diagnosed with endometriosis, Girl is in constant pain and suffers from a risk of infertility. What appears to be an individualist choice is later presented as the circumstances of her womb. The play suggests that no part of how her life has played out has been her choice. Framed in the activism of its company, these narrative choices jar. When you hold the playwright to the ideals of Power Play the gaps begin to show. Somebody was commissioned by the company and yet, where is the bite? Where do the politics surface in the art itself? This felt like a vital space, and it felt like a space that could’ve been for something very radical.
Outside the flat, we are handed small business cards. They say things like ‘Btw, your jokes about women aren’t funny’ and ‘I came here to have this drink/see this play/sit here alone. I did NOT come because I am desperate for a companion (trust me). Please respect my space.’ They are bright yellow and pink and they feel a bit like political dissemination tools. (Maybe they are). It reminds me that first and foremost this company is about activism, about making a change where it needs to be made. We move inside for Funeral Flowers, the second play of the day. Written and performed by Emma Dennis-Edwards, it was originally commissioned by the Royal Court as a short play for its Tottenham Festival. As we enter the kitchen (the exact same one we started in earlier), huge bouquets greet us. They tower over the counters and spill out onto the floor. It’s very visually poetic.
Funeral Flowers is another one-woman show, and the formula feels a little familiar. Dennis-Edwards plays an awkward, fumbling, but confident young woman in college who experiences a terrible act of sexual violence against her. These characters are tangible and we feel instantly on her side. The spaces are used well in Funeral Flowers – corridors become doorways, and small stools become whole beds. Spaces are cornered off and manoeuvred to get angles out of every nook and cranny in the flat. It brings forward questions about the choice of space, too. These feminist plays are set in domesticated spaces; the home, the bedroom, the kitchen. Spaces which are warm and safe and always gendered. This is disrupted through the stories that are told, and the defiance of the women inside them. In Funeral Flowers, there is a rejection of the nuclear family and the domestic all together, which serves as an interesting juxtaposition to the ornate flower arrangements that Dennis-Edwards’ character so meticulously arranges. It’s important to notice how men fit into these spaces (or how they very much don’t). Women and their bodies take centre stage, and pull back the spaces that were ripped from them.
Power Play’s central drive appears to be their data-driven activist campaign to examine the gender inequalities at Fringe. This is filtered through and supported by the four shows that they have programmed in this flat. Both Funeral Flowers and Somebody are wonderfully performed, and perhaps the strength of this company comes in facilitating the work of others. Yet, it feels as if there is something a little missed in this opportunity. I just wanted them to take a few more risks – give us an actual floristry lesson, let us into the bathroom, make us dance with you, show us the blood. Then, perhaps, we can find ways to be truly radical.
Somebody and Funeral Flowers are on until 25th August. More info on Power Play’s pop-up venue here.