Culture critic Ruth Horsburgh enjoys a truly spectacular Christmas treat at the Birmingham Symphony Hall.Written by Ruth Horsburgh on 31st December 2017
Review: ‘Virago’ at the mac
'Virago', a collaboration between the mac Birmingham and the Old Rep Theatre, provides a voice for women worldwide. Amber Allcock reviews this unique and thought-provoking play
“A mouthpiece for women worldwide
‘Mesmeric’ ‘dynamic’ and ‘brave’ are all words that have been used to describe Virago, translating as the ‘female warrior’ from Latin and the ‘the brave one’ in Hindu. The merging of languages in the title itself reflects the performance’s intention; the courageous and daring nature of the performance comes in its ability to represent voices from Europe, the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, acting as a mouthpiece for women worldwide.
Exploring a range of decisions and choices made throughout life, Virago - described as a woman of great stature and strength - braves these moments, at times flourishing, whilst at others being silenced. The genre of a dance-digital solo production was particularly fitting to exploring the contortion of the soul as one ducks and dives through life’s challenges. Impressive lighting and symbolism were combined to powerfully convey the struggle of the female; light and image were manipulated to work alongside the live body, distorting as the constricted light streams acted as both a confinement and liberation to Virago’s movement.
“Sabri captivated the audience, introducing them into a surreal exploration of the struggles within female existence and the pressures pushed upon women
The pressures of family life upon the female were particularly prevalent. Sabri pushed a translucent cube across the stage as though it held deep gravity and weight, whilst the sound of a family party could be heard in the background. The audio elements were overpowered by words such as ‘disappointing’, ‘perfection’, and ‘body’ which echoed around the performance space. At this moment, Sabri captivated the audience, introducing them into a surreal exploration of the struggles within female existence and the pressures pushed upon women. Whilst to this point, the performance appealed to the struggles of marriage felt particularly by women in Asian families, Sabri widened the cultural relevance of her performance, as the jingoistic sound of adverts offering ‘noticeably fairer skin’ for women were heard, alongside the classic Bridget Jones declaring ‘I am a fatty’. The show therefore encompassed a range of traditional pressures, broadening its significance whilst creating, at times, comedic aspects to seduce the audience’s interest.
The show interchanged between moments of power and liberation with those of oppression. The powerful moments were complimented by bright red and orange lighting which accompanied the verve and drive behind Sabri’s movements, inspired by both North Indian Kathak and contemporary approaches. These moments however were quickly interjected and contorted much like Sabri’s own motions. A rendition of ‘I am woman’ by Nadine Jones, Donessa Gray and Davinia Thomas heightened Sabri’s empowering nature, but was quickly interjected by more rigid movements and over-posed, camera ready expressions, creating a harsh juxtaposition between the fluidity of female power versus the reality of the ‘show’ of life, reminiscent of the Kardashians.
“Juxtapositions were a dominant and central feature to the performance’s composition
Juxtapositions, in fact, were a dominant and central feature to the performance’s composition. One moment Sabri could be seen reacting to disempowering statements about women which echoed around the space, protesting with vigour in her forceful, energetic movements to loud, masculine music, whilst the next, her movements would adapt to the softer, fairytale-esque melodies. This contrast captured the rainbow that is one’s personality and soul, combining gender stereotypes to confront the audience with a thought-provoking inquiry into what it means to be ‘virago’ - a strong and brave woman.
“The visual elements of the show gave force to the performance
One of the most visually stimulating images was the projection of Sonia Sabri herself. A dominating male voice was heard declaring ‘I love my wife’ whilst colourful red and orange string – colours previously used to accompany moments of empowerment within the performance – were instead used to demonstrate the suffocating nature and tendencies of marriage and femininity within Asian cultures. Sonia’s face and neck were wrapped with this string to create a disconcerting and brutal image. Perhaps stronger than this was the moment where dripping blood was projected on a loop, seemingly exploring Virago’s questioning of her own existence. At this moment Virago found comfort in the light, captivating and compelling her, used to symbolically represent her sense of inner purpose, personal direction and female power as she accumulated strength and freedom, dominating the stage with conviction and control. The visual elements of the show gave force to the performance; without which I believe it would have had only half of its dynamism. Even so, I felt the performance could have comfortably been cut to 45 minutes to fully sustain the audience’s interest.
Moments like these provided a springboard for the cacophony of voices which then became audible. Starting with very clear statements, such as ‘a single woman is bizarre, maybe even dangerous’ before becoming an indistinguishable loud blur of sexist statements, the performance distorted phrases heard from the realistic audio-backdrop of a family party to the more surreal. This was accompanied by a series of erratic movements as Virago struggled with conforming, experiencing overwhelming pressure before protesting with loud foot stamping, distinct even over the roaring music.
“The notion that the female voice will not be silenced was what triumphed
Throughout all these juxtapositions, the notion that the female voice will not be silenced was what triumphed. At end of the performance, Virago climbed back inside the cube, seemingly representative of her accepting conformance. Yet with Virago’s past record of personal victory and strength, the audience were lured into an air of mystery and encouraged to believe that Virago would burst out again, ready to combat life’s challenges, the patriarchy and familial pressures which previously worked to silence her. As both a performance of protest and celebration, Sabri managed a standing ovation, proving her outreach to have been a noticeable success amongst the crowd.