Gripping, tragic, humane and unflinching in the face of real-life horrors – the Gate’s latest production, the UK premiere of a play first staged in the US, is a blisteringly good piece of theatre. Written by Zimbabwean-American playwright and actress Danai Guira (Michonne in the hit TV series The Walking Dead), it turns an unsparing spotlight on one of the many abuses of war largely hidden from view.
Set some time before 2003, in the dying days of West African country Liberia’s civil war, Eclipsed charts the lives of four women captured by rebel forces and forced into sexual bondage. When we encounter them, two are trying to hide another, a teenage girl, from the commanding officer who periodically rapes them – but ultimately to no avail.
With skill and insight, Guira shades in a brutalised world in which endless wars inflict wounds that never heal; one where the women take numbers rather than names, organising themselves into a hierarchy of ‘wives’ in order to endure their horrendous treatment. The play triumphs in giving complex voice to the victimised, populated by characters whose trauma is matched by strength, humour and resourcefulness.
Men are nowhere and everywhere here – signified only by the chilling sound of an off-stage tap and the glare of a spotlight that falls on the women as they scramble into a line, waiting to see who’ll be picked this time. As the chosen one walks to the end of the stage and into darkness, the production conjures an atmosphere of remorseless and relentless fate.
Caroline Byrne directs with clarity and empathy, using Chiara Stephenson’s long, harshly concrete set (on a traverse-like thrust stage that makes witnesses of us) to create a dynamic space for conflict, suspicion and fleeting communion among the women, including ‘wife no. 2’, who has hardened her heart and joined the army – now caught up in the same circle of bloodshed that has devastated her country.
Michelle Asante, Joan Iyiola and Faith Alabi are superb as the older wives. They vividly bring to life the deep-seated rivalries and complicated affections that have grown between their characters over time. Like the abandoned radio and pillaged clothes and wigs they divide among themselves, these relationships are part of their semblance of a routine in the compound.
T’Nia Miller is also great as Rita, mixing compassion, naivety and buried grief as one of Liberia’s Women of Peace, who eventually helped to engineer the end of the civil war through sheer determination. Her arrival at the compound serves as a catalyst, forcing each of the women to contemplate a future beyond the walls of a prison that has become their only home.
What is freedom? And what does that word even mean, when war is all you know? What is left of you after everything has been taken away? These are the questions the play asks us, as it follows the trajectory of the teenage girl (a bruised, defensive and achingly vulnerable Letitia Wright) from book-reader to soldier, masking her fears behind a gun barrel.
And there’s a dark, bleak message – a grim irony – buried in the pages of the battered Clinton biography that Wright’s character reads to the others, and who Bessie (Iyiola) enthusiastically names her baby daughter after. From the country’s birth, the bloodied story of Liberia’s history has the fingerprints of successive American governments, their vested interests, all over it.