What mechanisms underpin the transformation of a fictional story, told and retold over the centuries, into historical fact? How, for example, did it come to be that in the vacuum of uncertainty regarding the means by which the pharaoh Cleopatra committed suicide, popular belief supplied an asp as the cause of her death?
Anguis opens in a recording studio, where virologist Dr Kate Williams (Janet Kumah) is listening to queen Cleopatra herself (Paksie Vernon) muse on precisely this question. Alongside her medical practice, Dr Williams hosts a podcast where women scientists speak about their life and work and…sing songs (more on that in a moment). This week’s guest is Cleopatra, who has been invited to speak about her lesser-known research into the health benefits of sour donkey milk and crocodile dung. Williams is particularly eager for Cleopatra to dispel the suicide-by-asp-bite myth in particular and contend the perpetuation of cultural prejudices through mistruths more generally.
While the sound engineer (Peter Lossaso) records Cleopatra’s answers, it soon emerges that Dr Williams is also battling for control over her own personal history of prejudice and mistruth. The two women’s stories interweave through questions of gender, racism, justice, misinformation and relative truth. Yet, perhaps Oliver award-winning actor and first-time playwright Sheila Atim has attempted to interweave a little too much in this one work.
Although the recording studio setting is an inspired metaphor for the writing of history—with its stops and starts and interruptions and re-interpretations—the podcast format doesn’t quite work. It’s Desert Island Discs where the guest performs their own songs. Vernon is a skilled singer with a beautiful voice, but the songs take up valuable time that could have been better used in more deeply exploring some of the issues raised.
For example, the work seems to take umbrage at the way in which myth—endlessly repeated—can come to be read as historical truth and the impact of such ‘truths’ on lives lived by later generations. Yet, the play suffers from a lack of clarity in relation to myth and truth. In places, the line between the two is so blurred as to seemingly suggest that truth is as entirely manufactured as myth. Although Atim seems a student of Wilde’s school of thought that ‘the truth is rarely pure and never simple’, there’s a muddiness to Anguis’s relationship between myth and truth that makes it difficult to understand what Atim hoped to achieve by juxtaposing the inane myth of Cleopatra’s asp bite with the assumed biases against Dr Williams.
Jointly produced by BBC Arts and Avalon, Atim’s Anguis is one of the second batch of plays produced under the banner of what last year was called DEBUT—a scheme where established creatives from other fields are invited to write their first piece for theatre. Following last year’s barrage of criticism for the inaugural plays, the DEBUT framework seems to have been dropped and the promotion reined in. 2018’s works were lambasted, particularly Frank Skinner’s Nina’s Got News and Katherine Parkinson’s Sitting, in part for the poor quality of the writing, but also because many critics felt that celebrities shouldn’t have been given a BBC leg up in favour of emerging playwrights.
While I don’t personally have a problem with the premise behind the initiative, the downright uninspiring quality of the initial offerings did no favours in persuading critics as to the soundness of the BBC’s original idea. Perhaps if last year’s plays had been better (I didn’t see any of them, alas), the critics would have been less incensed. Perhaps not. But, from the gist of other reviews, the 2019 productions seem to have at least avoided the major problems of last year’s shows. In the case of Anguis, while it isn’t a flawless production, it is a well-staged, well-performed thoughtful work that grapples with interesting themes and should help soothe feathers ruffled last year.
Anguis is on at Gilded Balloon at 3pm until 26th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.