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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 401-403
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Some Explicit Polaroids
Some Explicit Polaroids. By Mark Ravenhill. Out of Joint, New Ambassador's Theatre, London. 26 October 1999.
Sweet Dreams. By Diane Esguerra. Sphinx Theatre Company, Chelsea Arts Centre, London. 28 October 1999.
Supposedly, socialism and feminism have been discredited in late twentieth-century Britain. Between the recent crop of "lad's plays" noted by critics and feminists alike and the tendency of current theatre practitioners to reject the techniques of 1970s-era political theatre, feminism and socialism seem the least popular of stage subjects. Yet at the end of the decade, Mark Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids and Diane Esguerra's Sweet Dreams returned both issues to the stage with a certain millennial insistence. Sweet Dreams was commissioned and staged by Sphinx Theatre Company, the 1990s incarnation of feminist theatre pioneer the Women's Theatre Group. Polaroids was produced by Out of Joint under Max Stafford-Clark, whose direction of the seminal socialist theatre company Joint Stock is heralded in the name of his new company. The provoking, passionate productions of these new plays put socialist and feminist issues back on the boards with a savvy theatricality.
Like so many pieces of feminist theatre before it, Sweet Dreams restages that crucible of feminist critique: Sigmund Freud's failed treatment of Ida Bauer, the girl he immortalized as the hysteric Dora in his case study. In the post-show discussion I attended, Sphinx Artistic Director Sue Parrish said she commissioned the text because she was fascinated by Dora and has always viewed her as "a kind of female Hamlet: someone who has trouble being heard, has trouble with the past, is haunted." Unlike Helene Cixous's aggressively deconstructive Portrait of Dora, which dislocates language and multiplies characters into a hysterical iteration of images and actions, Sweet Dreams creates more solid characters and sequences. In fact, Esguerra's starting point is the "real" person Ida Bauer, who is often lost to history in the fame of her alter-ego Dora. Nevertheless, Esguerra's play still works by fragments, because almost nothing is known about the real Ida except the records of her treatment, her marriage, and her death. Esguerra knows that what makes the real Ida's case powerful is precisely its unfinished nature. Her cocaine-sniffing Freud can barely believe that Dora/Ida rejects him and leaves his analysis incomplete. In performance, the doubling of the wickedly sharp actor Jonathan Oliver as both Freud and Herr K amplified this confusion on the part of male figures at the [End Page 401] female's refusal to participate in their male narratives of love or recovery.
At the center of the play, Esguerra's Dora/Ida, played by Sophie Walker with a compelling and self-centered charisma, remained inscrutable, a mystery who seemed aware of her historic/hysteric dimensions. At moments Walker created a sincere child of an Ida, a girl on the cusp of puberty who had territory battles with her mother, idealized her father, and expressed genuine relief when Freud assured her that he in fact believed her story about Herr K's attempted seduction. At other times, Walker's Ida exhibited a self-presence that defeated all attempts to explain her still-potent mystery, as in one surreal scene where she turned the tables and analyzed the images in Freud's dreams. Sphinx's production used this scene to highlight the struggle between the real Ida and the words Freud used to represent her.
The staging of Sweet Dreams literally reflected this play of representation. The main set piece of Annabel Lee's design was a wall of horizontal rotating mirror panels, which spun to reflect the red and green carpet and furniture. The effect reproduced the images of the characters behind the bodies of the actors, as if the characters were suspended in the recollections, dreams, and projections poured out in Freud's office. In counterpoint, on the stage left wall a Munch-inspired line drawing of an emaciated woman whose eyes and lips were erased figured Ida...