“testament to artistic dedication”

To undertake the task of adapting Angela Carter’s writing is no mean feat, and Em Oliver’s reworking of three tales from The Bloody Chambers is testament to artistic dedication. Protagonists from three short stories are housed inside one melting pot narrative that provides them each with a tragic motivation to capture, torment, and bear justice upon a Boy (Zach Ismail). While the plot struggled to create a bridge between each story, it very much captured the gothic, wild feeling of Carter’s stories and gave them a freshly modern setting. 

The play’s design choices were bold and impressive. The soundtrack composed by Angelica Short created a gorgeous atmosphere throughout. Carrie Cheung created the perfect deep, dark forest for the action to take place in, with barren birch trees and tattered silk drapes perfectly emulating the writings’ decadently feral texture.  While I am usually averse to block colour lighting, I thought that it was used to great effect by Olga Kwan and Lyra Keran Zhang. Blackouts were also uncharacteristically used at the play’s opening to create powerful vignettes of each character – its boldness established the play’s unconventional tone well. 

Every actor occupied the stage confidently. They were a well-matched group, and it was refreshing to see a cast consisting entirely of people of colour. I know that this was an intention set out from the early days of the play’s production, and it was great to see. The intended sisterhood between Sumaya (Alexa Thanni), Nadya (Julia Bartholomeusz) and Alice (Catherine Turner) could probably have been further realised as their group scenes lacked naturalistic drive in the dialogue. Yet individually they each brought great depth to their monologues, and with Layla Nabi and Yibu Jin as ensemble roles, they created stunning movement sequences to support them. These moments of focus on each of the three girls were where the staging, writing, and performance were strongest.

I do, however, have some qualms about the handling of racial trauma within the script itself. The specifically racialised aspects of the stories did not feel sufficiently integrated within the plot, and what could have been a story about female rage felt underdeveloped due to the attempt at intersectionality. This might have been improved on had the script been written with a person of colour’s input, as lines exploring race were overwhelmed by the strength of the writing about their positions as women, especially underage queer women. It was a bold attempt, and white people creating more spaces for people of colour to tell their stories is not a bad thing, but it requires the voices of people of colour to be heard. I also found myself wishing the overall horror had been leaned into with the same wildness of the individual character’s monologues.

That said, the dedication of the entire cast and production team is undeniable, and the effort poured into bringing such painful subjects onstage safely should not go unappreciated. As director, Olga Kwan’s handling of such difficult material should be commended, for the consideration given to the real-life impact of this fictional narrative on those telling it. 

Before arriving, I was curious about how a page-to-stage adaptation focused on increasing diversity in an otherwise Western-centric story could be done, and the aesthetic choices and careful handling of the play’s subjects were highly impressive – successfully showcasing an undeniably strong feminist drive.

By Kate Moore

These Bloody Chambers will be playing at the Assembly Rooms Theatre until 18th June

Image credits: Sightlines Productions