Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 21 June, 1996

Paul Godfrey's modern version of Terence's Roman comedy Hecyra takes the cue for its awkward tone from the difference in attitude to the prime dramatic event (which occurs offstage, some nine months before the action begins) between first-century B.C. Rome and the twentieth-century West. Philumena, a character who herself does not appear, was raped one night by an unknown assailant, fled her home and marriage when her pregnancy grew advanced and as the action begins has just turned up in the Holiday Inn where her parents, in-laws and husband have been staying while searching for her in the city.

To Terence's audience, the act of rape was a less heinous affair (although still morally dark); today, the notion of basing a comedy upon such a violation is repugnant. Consequently, although Godfrey's free adaptation contains a number of mild laughs drawn from the characters of Philumena's family, The Invisible Woman is a sombre, deliberately uncomfortable affair in mood. Even before we learn of the rape, a feeling of stiltedness and unease is conveyed by a number of factors: Lucy Weller's stage design of a hotel corridor painted an unsettling scarlet, the fact that we only see characters conversing in this passageway, and Godfrey's decision to write in short, predominantly question-and-answer exchanges (only around halfway through the one-hour play does the family begin occasionally to utter lines of more than a dozen or so words).

Godfrey and co-director Ramin Gray insist on performances in keeping with the general air of discomfiture: characters seem detached, artificial, with a shadow of Ionesconian absurdity lying across their exchanges. Ann Firbank in particular succeeds in hinting at a stifled humanity in the husband's mother, Sostrata, but Ron Davies as her spouse Laches is awkward even by the standards of this production. The final resolution is comic only in the barest technical sense: in a six-word exchange which encapsulates the play's ambivalence, husband Pamphilus (Paul Mooney) having discovered that the woman he drunkenly assaulted months ago was the same one he later took to wife exclaims, "I'm a father!"  Bacchis, his former mistress, coldly replies, "You're a rapist."

Perhaps it is this pervasive discomfort which makes The Invisible Woman impressive though it is on its own terms feel more like an exercise or a demonstration of cultural difference than a drama in and of itself. It is consistently intriguing and gently provocative in its intellectual and moral aspects, and in the baldness of its style of presentation, but does not seem to stand quite comfortably upon its own two feet.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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