Photo credit: Carla Rogers
The myth of a misogynistic feminist
There’s something hugely admirable about people undertaking a personal labour of love. In that regards, Dylan Coburn Gray’s homage to playwright, Maria Black, ‘Briseis After the Black’ is definitely something to admire. Enjoy though? Not in the conventional sense and it’s certainly not for everyone. Easy enough to understand? That’s kind of slippery too. In its attempts to remind the world of an often neglected playwright, Maria Black, whose alleged suicide robbed the world of an amazing talent, ‘Briseis After the Black’ side winds its way into a debate on gender, with Black becoming the focal point of that debate. Focusing on Black’s relationship with her friend Bea, her influential play centred around Achilles and his lover Briseis, and Black’s own history of depression, ‘Briseis After the Black’ ultimately feels like a densely detailed, Brechtian styled lecture on feminism. In a production that actually resembles quite a few more shows than just one, its effort to engage intelligently with the mystery of Black risks intellectualising the woman into an uneasy feminist myth, despite her apparent misogyny.
After a prologue where legalities, and the question of what would Black be writing now if she was still here, have been hammered home, writer director Dylan Coburn Gray and his performance partner, which changes nightly, get down to the slippery business that is ‘Briseis After the Black.’ Both play roles within roles within roles, blurring actor, character and historical persona as the performance unfolds unexpectedly for both audience and cast. Throughout, ‘Briseis After the Black’ doesn’t so much make its points as overload them to saturation level. Gradually it begins to feel like a game of verbal one up-man-ship between Black and her friend Bea, Achilles and Briseis, Coburn Gray and partner, where everything from their relationships, to her play, to feminism to name but a few, are all argued for and against. In terms ranging from a petty squabble to deeper academic analysis, this game of verbal tennis, often delivered a little too low and a little too fast by Coburn Gray, sees questions answered with questions, offers lengthy treatise on feminism, and serves to deepen the mystery of Black. The end, when it finally arrives, is inevitable in its way, but offers a heart breaking reminder of the loss behind the words.
There’s strong echoes of Simon Bent’s ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ in the relationship between Bea and Maria in ‘Briseis After the Black’, as well as of Nassim Soleimanpour’s ‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ with its rotating cast constantly being surprised on stage, and a sense of an open ended theatrical event unfolding in real time. Incredibly clever in places, at times it risked being too clever for its own good, with some incredibly vital questions, such as those around the suicide of women artists, getting lost in the verbal turmoil. Feeling like a chunk and clunk study exercise at times, ‘Briseis After the Black’ often felt like it was cramming for an exam in gender studies, with all the buzzwords buzzing around as if cut and pasted from an academic review, and delivered in the same fashion. Yet Coburn Grays meta-theatrical staging offsets much of the academic tone that dominates much of the dialogue, showing incredible inventiveness throughout. Yet all the while, Black’s mystery deepens as the little information offered raises more questions than it answers.
Always supremely respectful of Black and her work, ‘Briseis After the Black’ is perhaps a little too much so, to the extent of being practically reverential. In its arguably overzealous attempts to show its feminist allegiances, what questions doesn’t it ask? What assumptions does it make? Is it a case of a man, yet again, appropriating a woman for his own agenda? Even if that agenda is a feminist agenda, is it Black’s feminist agenda or Coburn Gray's? Does Coburn Gray use Black to serve a feminist myth of his own liking? Who do we see or learn more of, Coburn Gray or Black?
There’s only one way for you to find out.
'Briseis After the Black' by Dylan Coburn Gray runs at The New Theatre as part of The Tiger Dublin Fringe until September 24th
For more information, visit The New Theatre or Tiger Dublin Fringe