Art and Music      
Chianciano Biennale


Pandora: the first woman; the first scapegoat

[Contains spoilers!]

WILLIAM McBRIDE: Allusions to the Pandora mythology in the new play “Pandora” by Jennie Buckman, showing at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston until 12th June 2010, aren’t always obvious, (apart from when Pandora herself appears to Cleo – a bright, partially-deaf school girl, whose real name is Cleopatra, who wets the bed and whose awful father is flirting with full-blown domestic violence – and gives her the lowdown in a zesty retelling, in which, for example, Epimetheus was “hung like a Titan”).

The four or five stories that make up this production do deal with women in trouble, sometimes women wrongly blamed, or women misguided or ‘tragically’ fated: ‘I had cold ditch water in my veins,’ a grandmother offers, posthumously, as explanation for her suicide; another woman roams Jamaica for decades – anguished; near mad – searching for a lost daughter, all the while neglecting her never-lost son.

There is also the effective inclusion of videos, projected onto four very large screens, of nine women who serve as a kind of Gods-sized chorus throughout the piece. In interview snippets these older women – London locals found at the Haringey University of the 3rd Age, who worked as collaborators on (or ‘source material’ for) the project – share personal stories, and their own takes on the mythology of Pandora. It is from these women’s own written contributions that Buckman derived her script.

I had become passively sympathetic with the prejudice against that which is called ‘Community Theatre’, that assumes that creative projects born out of community collaboration and ‘real stories’ are doomed to failure: shackled with awful compromise and corrupted by an extra-textual (often moral, or political) agenda, any artistry is bled out of them. They are, according to this prejudice, at best, uneven and sweetly benign and, at worst, sanctimonious and dull.

So, I was very happy to find here great actors performing dark, affecting stories, and focussed writing that never slipped from a very high standard. In the script there is: faithful, never parodic, East End idiom; excellent pace and tension (a scene of mounting tension before an eruption of domestic violence is now a trope, but it’s done excellently here); and well-pitched emotional language that I’m tempted to describe as ‘feminine’. There are evocative expressions of the almost-physical pain of a missing child, the particular terror of having a lover who is physically stronger than you, who beats you, and the particular language – affectionate and circumspect – of an older lesbian couple who have found each other after a life of children and husbands, and who are about to get civil-unionised, in an act of love and pioneering.

A consequence of the characters and stories changing frequently is to appreciate themes, form and craft ahead of story, and “Pandora” is a work of great craftsmanship.
Thematically, and in form, “Pandora” obviously borrows from mythological storytelling tropes, with often very violent or tragic storylines springing from the private trials of cloistered family life (the victim son becomes the perpetrator father; racist, misogynistic thugs receive a ghastly comeuppance).

The tragedies are extreme, and yet they don’t seem exceptional. They are the types of things you can imagine happening to yourself, or a friend of yours, maybe once or twice over the long span of a life; a personal tragedy that people might solemnly, ceremoniously recall for years thereafter. (Perhaps it is the frequent and textually harmonious references to Dalson, Bethnal Green and Hackney that help freak, multi-fatality car crashes, and grandmothers who commit suicide, to seem ordinary.)

There is also the unimpeachable child, who eternally, almost idiotically, offers the promise of redemption and renewal – ‘idiotic’, when we think of ‘hope’, not in the Obamian sense, but in the cruel mythological sense. FYI: when Pandora opened her jar, all the crap flew out into the world, but ‘hope’ remained trapped, because, as Friedrich Nietzsche puts it: “Zeus did not want man to throw his life away, no matter how much the other evils might torment him, but rather to go on letting himself be tormented anew. To that end, he gives man hope. In truth, it is the most evil of evils because it prolongs man’s torment.”

In form, the stories in “Pandora” are brief and entirely self-contained – the arc of the myth is such an enjoyable way to consume a story, and it compliments live theatre so well. The catharsis of the myth in art – especially in the theatre – is a timeless restorative; the austere reappraisal of one’s own life that catharsis prompts feels good for you, even if it might not always feel good.

I caught the show on one of Arcola’s ‘pay-what-you-can’ Tuesday nights where, if you’re broke, or parsimonious, you can sling over a handful of shrapnel, dodge the box office staff’s look of practiced disappointment, and score yourself a bargain ticket. I could call these nights cultural East London’s ‘best kept secret’, except they’re usually so rammed that it’s impossible to get a seat without leaving work early.

For some reason last Tuesday “Pandora” was probably only two-thirds full, which doesn’t bode well for the other shows in its run. Part of the audience was a schools group of local teenage kids, who, after the show, could be heard effusing over the play, and who heartily took part in the applause that insisted on an unanticipated curtain call (the seating lights had to be re-dropped, and the cast came out after some delay with traces of quizzical looks on their faces).

As a straight-up recommendation, I’d say that anyone who has lived in the East End for much of their life would enjoy the show, seeing their world rendered with such affectionate fidelity; as would anyone with an affectionate interest in East London culture, (rather than a reductive-stereotypical or creepy-anthropological interest); and then anyone else!

“Pandora” is the first full-length piece by Standing on the Shoulders of Giants Theatre Company, the creation of Jennie Buckman, who also wrote this show. It is directed by Alex Clifton and stars Kay Bridgeman, Jonathan Livingstone, Brian Lonsdale, Sophie Stone and Brigid Zengeni. Giants “is built on two passionate beliefs: the enduring relevance of the classics, and the creative energy to be found in our diverse communities.” Their next project will be about the families of British soldiers returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan (remember those wars?), and will draw from Homer’s Odyssey.


marti pratt
2010-07-20 01:37:18
I would love to see the show.... especially since I feel like I am co-starring in it already.

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