Artist Rosea Posey’s photograph ‘Judgements’ is a striking image, with a straightforward message: people make moral and character judgements about women based on what they wear. It’s hardly a radical statement – 50% of humanity will be able to tell you, wearily, that they know – but it is resonant, and ‘Judgements’ works so well as a picture because of the clarity of its message, the elegance of its composition and the truth behind it.
There is a similar intent at work in Medusa by 27 degrees. Taking the myth of the snake-haired Gorgon slain by the hero Perseus, 27 degrees grapple with the idea of women as ‘monsters’, and what it takes for a woman to be considered one. Five performers play five cheesecloth-clad Medusas (sartorially resembling Ariel from The Little Mermaid when she wraps herself in an abandoned sail after growing legs), each of them damaged in some way by a man, or men, or the patriarchy in general, and forced to become a monster who fights back.
There is a truth behind Medusa. It the truth that makes you raise your eyebrows at your date when he describes all of his ex-girlfriends as ‘crazy’ as if there isn’t a common denominator; it’s the truth that dogs a proactive, driven woman called a bitch for getting her way. Unfortunately, the piece is neither clear in its message or elegant in its composition. It is immersive theatre at its most ‘why did you make this immersive?’.
The Thames Tunnels are a delightfully strange venue, and the stage dressing has the valences of the homemade occult. (There are several lovely dioramas inside cardboard boxes that can be viewed through peepholes; arrive in time for the pre-show and you might be treated with some interaction from one of the performers). There are some clever and attractive ideas – using UV light to show up the ‘markings’ of a monster on skin, or framing one of the Medusas in the outline of a person on an overhead projector, encouraging the audience to write descriptions around her in a manner very similar to ‘Judgements’ – but there’s not enough in Medusa to even critique a narrative. If you’re familiar with the myth, it’s an interesting series of vignettes. Otherwise, it’s just an inchoate piece about the many ways men hurt women, loosely following the line of the legend.
Medusa doesn’t work as a piece of straight theatre, although it might have made a fairly intriguing piece of performance art. As immersive theatre, it’s bitty and reaching. There is a sense of box-ticking, for meeting some quota of interactions in order to justify the word ‘immersive’. There is no benefit to the audience being ‘involved’ in this piece, and the involvement interrupts its flow. For example, the Medusas gently tie string in audience member’s hair, symbolising both the snakes of the original Gorgon and the essential gentleness and care of female friendship (easily misunderstood, in large groups, as threatening covens). It’s a smart observation, but it’s better conveyed by the scene that sees the five performers singing a haunting nursery rhyme and braiding one another’s hair.
If this publication gave star ratings, I would request permission to replace the stars with question marks, as it isn’t fair to judge this new, earnest company on this single fumbling output. I give this ????? out of five possible ?s. Despite the truth in its message, it is baffling. But there is clear need on behalf of 27 degrees to create beauty and resonance, which merely bad theatre doesn’t have, and there’s a certain joy in its conveyance. Glimmering in the confusion are some clever ideas and interesting techniques. Medusa is not a success, but future works have the potential to be so.
Medusa was performed at the Thames Tunnels. Click here for more details.