A Hundred Words For Snow contains a moment that so perfectly encapsulates my teenage relationship to the idea of things like International Women’s Day (the day on which I am writing this review) or Women’s History Month (this month) that it took me a few hours to realize that was why the moment annoyed me so much.
Rory, fifteen-year-old would-be arctic explorer, is eagerly led to an isolated corner of a museum in Norway dedicated to polar exploration. The docent triumphantly shows her their single exhibit dedicated to the single female polar explorer they could find to highlight, displayed—as Rory notes with disdain—on a pink wall. Rory can muster only disgust and pity for this figure she is clearly expected to connect to, to be inspired by. What she did wasn’t nearly as impressive as the feats of the men—Franklin, Shackleton, Nansen—that she grew up obsessing over with her father, who has recently died. She probably cared what her make-up looked like while exploring, Rory thinks later; she had to have a day job. That’s not what polar exploration is about.
I hate to remember that I once felt that way about the token female icons they’d trot out for us at school—bored and dismissive, just wanting to get back to the men who were so appealingly free of gendered baggage. They did the real thing, it always seemed, while women did the lady’s version of it. But from this feeling—from, even, my resistance to it—playwright Tatty Hennessy crafts from the polar ice an elegant and unexpected metaphor for grief, for teenage desire in all forms, for the perhaps specifically teenage girl desire to not have to be the terrifying, unrecognizably bland, sexy, domestic, unpredictable thing called Woman that society insists you’re growing into. Can’t you just be a person, like men get to? Can’t you be the one who conquers virgin territory, not the conquered, not the one who has to wait at home, who has to yearn and grieve?
Gemma Barnett guides us with appealing and youthful energy through the tale of Rory, whose grief at the loss of her father takes the form of teenage monosyllables and a plan to fulfil her father’s unrealized dream of traveling to the North Pole, his ashes in tow. The one-woman format of the play is fully justified by Rory’s utterly convincing teenage self-centredness. No one else in the world is really real, except perhaps her father, sealed within one of the play’s few props, a heavy silver urn. Hennessy peels back Rory’s layers with startling elegance, and Barnett embodies this measured unfolding with precise skill that never feels like craft. She has a way with an outsized reaction and a deadpan look to the audience that mesh perfectly with Hennessy’s wildly dark humour, which prevents the story from ever becoming maudlin.
Small details accumulate like snowfall, apparently inconsequential and then suddenly too weighty to bear: Rory’s obsession with the deaths of arctic explorers, her initially frustrating dismissal of her mother and her grief, descriptions of the blank nothingness of the pole. Things that seem at first like well-worn shorthand, like a surprise sexual encounter in a foreign country, blossom under Hennessy’s detailed eye and in Barnett’s sensitive performance into a tightly woven web of thoughts, of feelings, of images, of fears. Though the play stumbles past what would be a perfect ending image into a more pat and packaged conclusion, the precision of its connections are what linger, taking time to unspool themselves after the play is done.
100 Words for Snow is on at Trafalgar Studios until 30th March. More info and tickets here.