PORTIA, Theatre503 - Review

And it was only when I began to feel actual, physical pain every time you left the room that it finally dawned on me: I was in love, for the first time in my life. I knew it was hopeless, but that didn't matter to me. And it's not that I want to have you. All I want is to deserve you. Tell me what to do. Show me how to behave. I'll do anything you say.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses

He kissed me
He kissed me
He hit me
And it felt like a kiss
Lyric: St Etienne, She's The One, Foxbase Alpha


One-woman shows that involve Shakespeare (on at least at a tangential level) have been increasing in number over the past couple of years. Portia – written and performed by Lindsay Dukes – has taken this phenomenon to the next level, weaving the frustrations of making a living as a young, female actor with a subject that conjures up all sorts of images, if not judgement calls and assumptions – 'domination' and 'submission'.

This notion is traditionally not a natural bedfellow with freedom, (though some feminists like  Gayle Rubin and Patrick Califia see BDSM as a valid form of expression of female sexuality) but that's exactly the journey that Gemma, Dukes' character makes for herself, as she tries to square this unorthodox behaviour with traditional feminism's critical stance of the subject.

The play begins with Gemma playing Candy Crush on her phone. As she shares her observations about the game, life in her studio flat and her less-than-interested agent, we sense that Gemma is waiting for a breakthrough, not just in terms of her career or even her love life, but of an outlook, a stoicism that will reshape her reality and make life's pain more bearable.

Dan, the man that Gemma eventually shares this unusual relationship with is often contrasted with her ex, Nathan. By all accounts Nate's very polite and pleasant enough, but no 'fireworks' personality-wise or in the bedroom – and definitely not one to push her boundaries. Still, the fact he 'moved on' first has given Gemma ample time for deciding what she wants, what she REALLY craves, untempered by what she 'ought' to desire.

Gemma's situation has parallels with another female fictional character – with Mme de Tourvel in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. To rephrase Valmont's famous seduction speech, she still believes wholeheartedly in equality for women, deserving of respect and being in charge of her own destiny, and yet... she's still not able to help herself, revelling in this situation of her choosing and equating 'surrendering' to this individual with love.

Subsequently, Gemma turns a corner in her life. Following her resurgence of confidence, she gets an audition for her all-time favourite Shakespearean role, Brutus' wife Portia in Julius Caesar. Gemma's two, very different renditions of 'Portia' in the play are very poignant, and this is where Dukes' knowledge and experience as artistic director of the Reversed Shakespeare Company pays dividends – showing sensitivity to- and command of- the material. The strong Portia that Gemma knows in her heart and mind is the polar opposite of the fragile, broken creature that the casting director expects her to play – a state of mind she's all too familiar with.

Her true epiphany, however, comes from something she listens to on the radio. The horrors that other women around the world endure, simply because of their sex, put her 'problems' into perspective where the only 'danger' she has to endure is tedium and frustration.

Dukes' play works on many levels – as a comedy, a confessional, a meta-analysis of the interpretation of Shakespeare's female characters, as a damn good play. Whatever similarities Dukes might have with Gemma as an actor, I certainly don't think Dukes is the sort of person to wait for opportunities to land in her lap – not when she can produce work of this calibre. In terms of its insights and entertainment value, this play is theatrical gold.

© Michael Davis 2016

Portia runs at Theatre503, Battersea, London until 7th May 2016.
7.45pm (5pm on Sunday)



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