An unknown open prison, more than likely designed by men, is the sparse setting for Cassiah Joski-Jethi’s latest thought-provoking piece. The focus is on six women, whom have the audacity to act as individuals and expectation to be treated as such. The production opens into the unknown – these women have a past that becomes slowly more and more apparent throughout the play, but which is initially hidden from view. Concealed but present, not unlike the mail prison guards that are never seen but are heard as they bang on the cell from time to time in an effort to subjugate their captors. Greenwich Theatre continues its work to champion new and emerging theatre companies and writers; Culture Clash and Joski-Jethi produce Under My Thumb to christen the opening of the theatre’s new studio space.
A continuously developing work in progress, director James Haddrell and the cast are keen for feedback in Q&A sessions that run after each show. Originally submitted as a 20-minute short script in the RED Women’s Theatre Awards 2016, Under My Thumb questions the extent to which women are still considered unequal to men in society. Joski-Jethi projects on to the audience a dystopian version of the future, one in which men have such power that they can condemn their strong female counterparts into isolation for being themselves, for daring to dream bigger than their rightful place or for taking a stand against abuse and torment. The pressure of the system distorts the women into the most primal versions of themselves, a Lord of The Flies style situation in which only the fit survive and the fight or flight instinct takes over. At least, it seems to in the case of Hattie (Charlotte Green), who transforms into the alpha of the wolf pack. Fighting their way out, breaking the rules, that’s the only way to survive; Green is constantly alert and exerting dominance, a caricature bully of the school playground. New girl Ree (Serin Ibrahim) doesn’t play along like the rest, too intelligent to be brought under Hattie’s spell. Given the twist in her story toward the end of the show, Ibrahim can afford to take more licence in her part and showcase the Jekyll and Hyde aspects to her character.
There is a tipping point in the play, one in which Lily (Alice De-Warrenne) lashes out during role play with immature Sam (Cassandra Hercules) and gives the audience their first insight into the trauma these women have experienced. It is quickly followed by Nev’s (Jessica Aquilina) first lines that are full of sub-text and hidden message, as much about what is not said as about what is. De-Warrenne is the overall star here; she draws the eye as much in her non-verbal communication as in her assured delivery. A protective mother hen over feeble Rosaline (Sian Eleanor Green), there is a tenderness in the slightest of touches between these two, a companionship that highlights the lengths Lily would go to in order to shield Rosaline from the perils of life. As Rosaline, Sian Green is unsure of herself – for the most part this comes across convincingly, with a few moments in which an even more fractured approach would reveal hidden depths in the character.
Haddrell’s vision brings to life a feeling of insecurity in one’s own belief of the surrounding world. Is this desecrated holding pen that different to the real one that provides Joski-Jethi’s inspiration? Is British society programmed to believe that they are to blame for the consequences if they stand up to injustice, the way these women are forced to acquiesce in the video testimonies that punctuate these scenes? As a work in progress, Under My Thumb shows real promise – some character development, for example to justify the interaction between Nev and Ree in a poignant nail-biting scene, or to validate the decision that Rosaline takes to achieve her final destination, can elevate this already poignant and relevant piece into something with a powerful voice and a magnetic story to tell.
Director: James Haddrell
Producer: CultureClash Theatre
Writer: Cassiah Joski-Jethi
Cast: Jessica Aquilina; Alice De-Warrenne; Charlotte Green; Sian Eleanor Green; Cassandra Hercules; Serin Ibrahim
Runs until 2 October 2016