‘Westron Wynde’, the song which builds and echoes through Cordelia Lynn’s fine and dangerous play, is something of an orphan itself. First appearing in a 16th century part-book passed between musicians in the court of Henry VIII, it had fallen through time from a century or two earlier, a strangely secular lyric uncoupled from its original context and repurposed. It’s a mournful expression of loss and homecoming in four short lines, that could themselves have been blown across seas or over mountains, like a prayer on a breeze.
Westron wynde when wyll thow blowe
the smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed Agayne.
It’s well chosen, then, as a refrain for the eponymous Lela, dislocated from her family, and eventually from all possible comforts by the brutality of men, and of their wars and the commerce between them. Lynn’s play is a lament for the female body under a capitalism backed into a corner by conflict, where it reveals itself in its most direct and vicious form – where it really bares its teeth.
Lela tells us her life’s story with a girlish enthusiasm, keen to point out the petty injustices of her childhood, tone-deaf to the details which suggest grimmer possibilities and foreshadowings in tales of her father’s brutality, or the unequal treatment she received. But Lela can never get very far with her monologue without the intruding voice of a man, perhaps her father, then her brother-in-law, then a husband, who corrects details in her memories and over-writes her anecdotes. Gradually this control over Lela’s story shifts from the textual to the actual, as she is married off, and finds herself at the mercy of a vicious husband who imprisons her in a shabby back-room of his house, and rents her body out to his friends, then his acquaintances, and then random hordes of parched soldiers.
The dark is central to Lela’s experience of the world. She’s kept in it, figuratively at first, and then literally, and we follow her into it. We see the control of information as the vital advance-guard in the control of choice, and then autonomy. The candy-floss and lollipop world that Lela greets us in is an extension of that, run through the symbolism of Lolita-culture and the global industries which make hay from the joint infantalisation and sexualisation of women. We’re offered candy floss at the end, but by then nobody really has the stomach for it.
War is the backdrop, but it’s not a specific war, gaining strength, like the setting, from its anonymity. Talk of mountains and lakes offer tantalising suggestions, but even the story’s placement in time seems to swim and blur. The message is one of a dreadful universality of experience. The story’s roots in the real world are disguised, almost irrelevant. There’s lots that’s unseen and unknown here, but none of the occlusions detract from what takes place, and its weight. Jude Christian’s production is packed with stark decisions, but her decision to play the most brutal scenes of sexual violence in near-blackout, with just a single bubble of glass picked out in the gloom, is her boldest and most powerful.
Designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita works in a complex interplay of symbols and shorthand. Lela might have created the space herself, its red-curtains suggest a womb-like safety, the neon lights that pick out her name and the striped cabaret-style flooring feel appropriate for a woman acutely aware, if practically isolated from, the fine distinctions of class and glamour, whose aesthetic vocabulary takes in Marilyn Monroe and expensive French patisserie. But it’s also a stage for display, for the displaying of a product. It’s a sort of show-room, as Jabares-Pita and Christian make clear in an ad-channel style cut-away promoting the ideal husband and wife. The auditorium’s seats are preloaded with business cards for Lela & Co. the corporation – the business selling sex, selling Lela. The bunches of candy-floss handed out to the audience make for an obvious counterpoint to the narrative, but they’re still horribly effective. The rattle of gunfire accompanied by a strobing of the four neon letters, L-E-L-A, punches through with unflinching force.
Christian’s production is accomplished in its manipulation of discomfort. The ever-present male, played with a disturbing blankness by David Mumeni, is often an irritant, shouting too loud or faffing with props at the corner of the stage – spinning sugar into floss. But it’s all intentional, it’s all part of his dominance, in his various forms, over her world, and eventually his failure to save her from it.
Katie West’s performance is horribly evasive, never allowing the full weight of her misery to fall onto the text (where it would squash it, utterly) but instead bobbing along as if it’s all so everyday, so expected, such a minor unfairness in a life that’s never been even slightly fair.
And that’s Lela & Co.‘s trump card. Because the most awful thing of all is that about half-way through it all begins to sound so familiar. Oh yeah, woman trapped by marriage into prostitution, subjected to profit-motivated gang-rape, child-birth in a dank and locked room, child-death in the wilderness, reborn into a shame she can’t shrug-off. Heard it, mate. Heard it before. Change the tune. Change the record. And that’s not an attack on the play, which Lynn has crafted in blunt and beautiful language, and Christian has realised with gruesome originality, but on this fucking, fucking world. With all these fucking men drawing lines and boundaries and hunting women, who flee like refugees from exclusion zones of violence and exploitation.
Well done us. We’ve made excruciating sexual torture and human deletion into the wallpaper of our culture. Into the background hum of constant unfolding atrocity. We’ve made Lela’s story, her true story mind you, into a cultural commonplace. The slowest of slow claps. Try not to catch anyone’s eye when you walk out. And don’t take the candy floss. Don’t ever take the candy floss ever again.