The boathouses that lie along the Thames are not places I am very familiar with. So cycling past them in the moonlight on my way to watch Mountains, I was excited to experience something out of the ordinary. And this piece of Artaudian theatre created by Bea Udale-Smith was certainly that.
After cycling for a fair while down the river, I arrived at the St Catz boathouse, the setting chosen for this reimagining of Sylvia Plath’s poem Three Women. There, audience members are greeted, given a synopsis of the plot and a mask to wear for the duration of the performance. This adds to the uneasy voyeuristic nature of the show, in which the audience tread a blurred line between watching and participating. Inside, a huge painted eyeball adds to that same feeling. The set is simple, yet striking, as everywhere the walls are draped in a crimson cloth, making the room feel more like the inside of a womb than a stage.
The performance is a blend of physical theatre, poetry, and film, which tells the stories of three different women’s experiences of childbirth. The first woman’s experience is a happy one, the second miscarries in her workplace where no one cares, and the third is experiencing pre-partum psychosis which eventually leads to her giving up her child. All three actresses delivered strong performances, although it was Chloe Taylor as the second who particularly stood out, with a breath-taking monologue towards the end of the show.
The piece’s true strength, however, lies in its ensemble work. The actors (or perhaps more accurately dancers) contort, bend and throw their bodies around one another with an incredible energy which never wanes throughout the entire hour. Udale-Smith’s direction here is superb, creating a physicality of birthing which is both hypnotic and at times deeply uncomfortable to watch.
Kat Dixon Ward’s writing must also be commended. She preserves the mystical quality of Plath’s poetry, whilst lending it an immediacy that greatly adds to the success of the performance. In a strikingly honest moment, John Livesey, playing the husband of a woman who has miscarried three times, admits that the thought of leaving her has “crossed (his) mind”. After witnessing the pain of Taylor’s character, this subtle touch in Ward’s writing sent shivers down my spine.
Mountains is a show in the vein of Punchdrunk theatre, which doesn’t disappoint. If you can somehow nab a ticket and navigate your way down the river in the dark, then you’re in for an hour which you won’t readily forget.