CW: insanity, mental illness
She Felt Fear – Kristy Miles’ new play, which premiered at the Burton Taylor Studio in Week 4 – made me think of a Yeats poem. Or the beginning of one, because for the life of me I can’t remember the rest of it:
“I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay.”
You’ve got to love the resonance: She Felt Fear has a fiddle, a poet, and a hysterical woman who is sick of them both.
The plot is uncomplicated. Kathy (Juliette Imbert) is a single university student living alone. A prickly perfectionist, she pours all her energy into her work and an occasional visit with her only friend, Peter (Jules Upson), who is quietly in love with her. When Peter drags Kathy to a party, Kathy meets the lovely Lily (Bethan Draycott) – and finds that she likes to spend time with her. For a misanthrope like Kathy, it’s as if the sky is falling in. As Kathy hurtles into a relationship with Lily, and Peter tries to express his secret love, it becomes clear that nobody will escape with their emotions intact. At any moment, Kathy could snap.
This is all accompanied by Nina Halpenny on violin, while a mysterious poet-narrator (Emma Starbuck) looks on, offering some delicately written verse now and then.
She Felt Fear proceeds in the way of a traditional narrative, which is a relief; it’s easy to understand what’s going on, even when surreal elements creep in. And they do creep in. When the narrator isn’t looming over the corner of the stage, she’s inserting herself into the tale with no regard for the fourth wall. And that’s not to mention Kathy’s scenes of mania. There’s a point in the play’s latter half, when Kathy, devastated and lonely, writhes on a table like some diseased lab animal. Even through these strange images, the audience remains firmly situated in the story – no easy feat.
This is a testament to the quality of Miles’ script, which is tied tight as a bow. Yes, there are plenty of aphoristic passages – “Listening and saying the right thing in response is some kind of witchcraft,” says Kathy at one point – but they are well-balanced by the earthier sections. Many jokes had audience members snorting. The awkward banter between Kathy and Lily is compelling, a portrait of first-date discomfort that manages to string itself out across an entire relationship. Miles is a playwright to watch.
Adam Possener composed original music for this show, and although the pieces are short, often lasting only a few seconds between scenes, they are outstanding. Possener’s use of alternative violin techniques – like jittering the bow across the strings and tying a windchime to the bow’s end – makes the melody sound like it’s about to fall off the edge of a cliff. It’s unsettling. Lizzy Nightingale’s set design doesn’t draw attention to itself, which, for this show, is ideal. The tables and chairs are easy for cast members to move on their own. Lighting and sound design, by Ava van den Thillart and Luke Drago, and Valerina Tjandra, respectively, is also streamlined – it fleshes out the story without being distracting.
Imbert brings Kathy to terrifying life, in a performance so authentic that you sometimes fear for Imbert’s own sanity (don’t worry, she looked fine at curtain call). Imbert is particularly believable because of her fine control of microexpressions – those facial expressions that flit across one’s features for a tenth of a second. Upson is a lovable wonder as Peter, leaning hard into the friend-zone blues. Draycott as Lily is the stereotypical manic-pixie-dream-girl, and quite a convincing one. Halpenny, our violinist, is clearly engaged with the story, while our narrator, played by Starbuck, defies description; I’d come close by likening her to the best Oscar Wilde fever dream you never had. And, of course, there’s the flamboyant Alfred Dry in a variety of background roles. Together, this ensemble brings the heat.
She Felt Fear sets out to prove that the hysterical woman trope is not dead. To the modern viewer, this might seem distasteful. Why can’t we leave Mrs Rochester locked up in the attic, where she belongs? The modern cult of the Girl Boss has no place for unhinged women.
But Miles’ play recognizes that female empowerment can come at the price of vicious self-criticism, and that female individuals bear a disproportionate amount of the mental health burden. The hysterical woman used to be born crazy; nowadays, she’s driven crazy. Surrounded by the pressure to be beautiful, to craft a beautiful life, and to appreciate beauty, is it any wonder that Kathy goes a bit crazy? She Felt Fear is a portrait of hysteria in the twenty-first century. It’s more progressive than you might expect.
Besides. For all of Kathy’s wild moods, nobody once asks her if she’s on her period. If that’s not an affirmative experience, I don’t know what is.
Image Credit: Aaron Hammond Duncan