At the very beginning, with both women taking about ‘Frederick’ and ballet, I did wonder if what I was seeing was meant to be the same woman, but different ages. In time I would have a better understand of what their relationship with ‘Frederick’ was, but my initial inkling that their lives were linked wasn’t so far from the truth…
Written by Cordelia O’Neill and directed by Kate Budgen, No Place For A Woman isn’t your usual tale about life in Poland at the close of the Second World War. On stage throughout the 75 minute play are Isabella (Emma Paetz), a skilled ballerina and Annie (Ruth Gemmell), wife of a German officer. They are accompanied by cellist Elliot Rennie, who is partly obscured by a gauze screen.
Plucked from a concentration camp by Frederick, its Commandant, Isabella is brought to Annie’s house party to perform. However, Annie is unhappy by Isabella’s presence for a number of reasons. Firstly before she was married, Annie had given serious consideration to dancing as a career. The way she remembers the past, she ‘had’ to give ballet if she was to be Frederick’s wife. However what truly galls Annie ‘is this other woman’ hasn’t had to give up her dream to share Frederick’s bed. In short, Isabella ‘has it all’, the life Annie wanted without compromising. Isabella, however, is more like Helen Hirsch, the Jewish maid in Schindler’s List, doing whatever’s necessary so that she’s kept out of the camp. Isabella’s a born survivor.
The to-ing and fro-ing of the women’s status is indicated by a fur coat that each takes it in turn to wear on either side of the stage. Their own relation is reminiscent of that between Eleanor and Kate in Peter Nichols’ Passion Play – at least from Annie’s point of view of the ‘shift of power’.
While No Place For A Woman doesn’t strictly pass the Bechdel test, it does show how each woman without realising it, held the life of the other in their hands – even though they felt they had little control over their own lives or valued as women in their own right. As two sides to the same coin, both women are ‘mistresses’ to the war – subject to a transitory elevated status, but only so long as the ‘music’ lasts… Incidently, to my knowledge, the last time that a play at Theatre503 featured a live cellist on stage was Madicken Malm’s Victory in 2015 – also using mournful, contemplative music to frame and reflect the essence of a woman’s life…
© Michael Davis 2017
No Place For A Woman runs at Theatre503, London until 27th May 2017.