A superb production of a play about four women in the midst of war.
Danai Gurira’s remarkable play is an epic of war and suffering, compressed into the story of four women’s harsh and stunted lives, painted with warmth, humour and rage. Like the four Trojan Women of Euripides, the sisterhood at the heart of ‘Eclipsed’ have been displaced and subjugated, chewed up by a conflict of men on men.
Here the land is Liberia, battered by a civil war that rolls on endlessly outside the compound where these women live as ‘wives’ to a powerful commanding officer. Their voices, and that of a visiting peace worker from the big city, are the only ones we hear, as they struggle to find meaning and a place in a cruel and almost incomprehensible world. They’ve lost their names, they call each other by their rank – Number One, Number Two, Number Three – a rank earned by the length of time they’ve serviced their captor.
‘Eclipsed’ begins with the arrival of young, educated Number Four and the return of the brutalised Number Two, who has chosen to join the rebel army’s depleted ranks to lift herself out of a life of poverty, monotony and rape. She offers the same bloody escape route to Number Four, but the price of this freedom, essentially a violent radicalisation, becomes harrowingly clear.
Deep, textured and told in urgent, lasting images, Gurira’s greatest achievement is to balance all of this with fine and heartening good humour. Her characters are drawn with love and understanding, and a sense of community which holds them together, as they obsess about the life of America’s ‘Big Man’ Bill Clinton, pieced together from Number Four’s readings of a stolen biography. This world they have been forced into is an unbearably cruel one, but they work to invest it with purpose and light.
Caroline Byrne directs a phenomenal production, with an all-encompassing design from Chiara Stephenson, and performances of almost unbearable veracity and tautness. Led by Michelle Asante as the increasingly motherly Number One, they handle Gurira’s tricky, worn-in, Kreyol-inflected dialogue with tremendous skill and authority. This is some of the most ambitious work yet seen in London’s most relentlessly ambitious theatre: a defiant cry wrestled into a considerable work of art.