DOWRY, Camden People's Theatre - Review

Dowry. For untold millennia, this 'payment' from one family to another was customary in cultures the world over. Occasionally it would be the groom who would have to pay the bride's family, but more frequently it was the other way around. In some cultures, the dowry from the bride's family sometimes took the form of jewellery that the bride wore on her wedding. However the custom manifested itself, marriage was inextricable from the transference of property and wealth. The bride was seldom valued in her own right, but only what she could bring of value to the groom (even if it was only youth to bare an heir for him). Small wonder that Western critics over the past century have castigated this practise, highlighting the hitherto absence of attention to the bride's well-being and wishes.

Stephanie Black is a seasoned performance artist who in the past has tackled the political and social context of women's bodies in a variety of ways. As a white Westerner who spent her formative years living in the Middle East and as a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Black has a unique perspective on global women's issues. In her latest piece Dowry, explores through ritual and live performance the transition of a woman who is the material and sensual property of the groom to a person outside the confines of 'status', totally free.

Darkness. A figure on a podium stands silently covered in long dark fabric (one you would think is suitable for a funeral). As the sustained note in the background hums, small movements can be detected, along with the rustling of jewellery. Slowly, methodically, Black pulls up the fabric around her, first revealing her legs (which are bound by wire of some description) and around her hips and waist, various chains of jewellery, which swishes with her every movement.  

Free from the fabric that initially covered her, we see she's adorned head to foot in either jewellery or wire as a form of bondage. For some reason the 'chinkle-chankle' noise of the jewellery and the 'bondage' reminds me of Alan Strang's restraints in Peter Schaffer's Equus.

The audience (including myself) who has been standing in a semi-circle around Black are silently beckoned, all of us representing the groom on his wedding night. One by one the audience places one of their hands to a part of Black's face or body, which she indicates.

Black moves to and away from the audience, suggesting both a sensual aspect to the bride, as well as her urge to recoil from her husband's first advances. Once Black's interacted with all close by, the audience helps to free her from the wire around her legs and the other jewellery that adorns her.

Free from adornment, Black lets down her hair. Receiving what looks like red earth,  she  hurls the crimson grit upon herself in a violent, forceful fashion, not unlike a soldier who uses a sword to impale himself. There now stands before us now the primal, unfettered woman, at one with the land she represents and echoing the first man Adam, whose name literally means 'from the red earth'. The image before us is as far removed as can be from the bound, gilded woman who stood there previously.

Swaying, bending down, at once hunched down and upright, Black's rhythm picks up speed in and tandem with strobe lighting. The lighting's speed reaches a point when it looks like we're watching a Nickelodeon film, where in every other frame we can make out the posture of Black frozen forever as a wild,untamed child of nature. This continues until the speed and brightness of the strobe lighting reaches its apex, echoing the birth of creation.

Following the performance, while I was making notes, attendees to Dowry were discussing what they had witnessed. For a performance that had no dialogue, there was a lot debate about its meaning and a positive buzz about the show. Proof that ideas can be communicated without the need of words.

© Michael Davis 2015

Dowry was performed at Camden People's Theatre as part of the 'Calm Down Dear' festival of feminism on 27th September 2015.

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