In a gloomy enclosure, a woman is tethered to a rope from on high, and prepares to give birth. This is Unwoman, a weary soul whose birthing resembles less a choice and more a prison sentence.
This pummelling co-production by feminist company The Rabble and director Maeve Stone is the first in a large-scale project about controlling women’s bodies. (Parts I and II will premiere in 2019). Fittingly, the beige and clinical details of a hospital ward that inspire Kate Davis’s set are dotted with parched rocks from a wasteland. Folklore has long associated women’s fertility with physical landscapes. Here it seems a duty.
Olwen FouÃ©rÃ©, whose past roles include Cathleen NÃ Houlihan and Anna Livia Plurabelle, is about the only actor who can play the metaphysical Unwoman. She allows herself to wander slowly, with subtle duress, before bending and heaving in stages of agonising labour.
When she gives birth to a rock, the touch of absurdism within an intensely serious production can be splutter-inducingly funny. But then it becomes clear that the cycle is on repeat, forcing her to deliver over and over, making it a work of immense pain.
At this point, it’s clear to absolutely everyone that this is the stripping away of reproductive rights, given frightening intensity. FouÃ©re is meticulous in a nerve-shredding production but there is danger of it becoming overwhelmingly extreme. Even Maeve Stone and Emma Valente’s sound design races from the beep of a heart monitor into torrents of sound, as if composing for a horror film.
The risk is that this exploration of violence can’t get passed its damage. That’s probably why the production soon prefers to retreat in ghostly video images of rocky terrain and women’s bodies, as if it needs a moment to breathe.
There are aspects that aren’t fully clear. Who knows what it means when Unwoman crawls animal-like across the stage and stacks rocks high to make a wall. But it feels important when, given a towering presence by live projection, she stares out intently as we unfailingly meet her eye.
A piece of spoken word at the end references a woeful history of oppression, though FouÃ©rÃ© can convey as much with a regretful scrunch of the face. With hopeful utterances, she resembles less a victim and more a survivor.