‘Hypatia’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by September 20, 2017

‘Hypatia’ is an exciting and unusual adult show, produced by Liz Newell and devised by the acclaimed theatre makers, The Open Lid Ensemble. Open Lid do not present a great deal of shows, but they believe in giving top quality and not basic quantity.

As the script tells us, history is written by ‘winners’ and ‘men’. The team have chosen a fascinating, true story from a millennium and a half ago. The devisors have thoroughly researched this biography, and have developed it into a remarkable, choreographed drama.

The 60-minute performances of this World Premiere can be seen each evening at the earlier time of 7.00 pm in the Blue Room Theatre, 53 James Street, in Northbridge until 7th October.

 

Chris Brain and Nathalie Fuentes’ set has the seating parallel, arranged on both sides of a central stage. There is a marble floor leading to a set of steps, topped with a symbolic statue of Hypatia. Low-lying clouds stretch above the set. Stage Managers Sally Davies and Phoebe Pilcher have a reasonable amount of ‘restoration’ to carry out at the end of the play.

The lighting designer, Rhiannon Petersen, has carefully selected the light levels and colour tones.

 

       Hypatia of Alexandria (Kat Shaw), the 5th Century Egyptian mathematician and astronomer enters the stage with four others – her alter egos. Dressed in grey muslin T-shirts and beige, knee-length shorts, the personae represent Hypatia’s past, present and future.

       Hypatia stood out from all of the other scientists of the day, because she was female. In what was then part of the Roman Empire, one had to be careful of becoming involved in arguments or controversy, especially if like Hypatia you are a Pagan feminist. Even two hundred years after her death, a Bishop of the Christian church was still referring to Hypatia as a witch.

       Being the daughter of wealthy Theon, the Mathematician and founder of the world’s largest library, Hypatia was educated in Athens. For most of her life Hypatia did not feel threatened or belittled, even in all-male gatherings. The play continues with Hypatia and her inner beings all being aware of pending doom. As they pace around, they can foretell in detail, the teacher’s fate.

       At the age of 55, this philosopher became head of a school in Alexandria, with Hypatia teaching male and female students of many nationalities and religions. One of her pupils went on to become a Libyan bishop. During her lessons, we see her demonstrating the celestial movements, thus winning the respect and admiration of her pupils. One day, a prefect at the school, Orestes (Courtney Turner) met Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria (Amanda Watson),who was furious to hear that a mere woman was challenging the church’s theory on the heavens. He had drastic plans to stop this stupidity.

        Backed by hundreds of monks, Cyril – who had little knowledge of science, or even basic female anatomy – was now a major threat. When one of Hypatia’s pupils (Ann-Marie Biagioni) heard of the uprising, she tried to warn her teacher. Another student (Hannah Evelyn) was devastated by the imminent happenings.

        Did common sense or the Church win?

 

This tragic tale would have been lost to history had it not been for Socrates, who in 415 AD wrote a logical, true and detailed account of the events. A second account was given in the religious ravings of John of Nikiû, in which he concurs that Hypatia was indeed a witch.

The script is richly written, with every sentence slowly drawing you further into this tragic tale.

Composer and musician, Michael Biagioni, has composed a fantastic soundscape, ranging from a soft, almost imperceptible backing, to an ear-shattering climax. Most of the melody came from an electric guitar fitted with a reverb unit: but when the action demanded, he added an electronic drum platter, which had a mind-blowing, cathedral bell effect.

This live score skilfully merged the essentials of Greek theatre, with the Japanese Butoh dance style.

As one of the main themes of the story was astronomy, the dancers’ arm and body movements hinted at the angles of the sun, and the shape of the planets’ orbits – a extraordinary idea that worked so well. The dramaturg was guided by Finn O’Branagáin, and the play’s movement mentor, Frances Barbe, ensured that the dancers used their whole bodies to tell the story.

The actors had complex and tricky passages to deliver, but they were still spoken with clarity and maximum emotion.

With such a vibrant and powerful show, publicist, Samantha Maclean might have tough job accommodating all of the patrons looking for tickets. A quality show in every way.