A jarring combination of parody and psychological thriller. Madeline Cunningham’s Full Circle has an imaginative premise, but confusing and ponderous execution.
The preset involves four young women performing a synchronised dance routine. Three in grey dresses and one in bright pink, all with stern facial expressions. It wasn’t the most impressive of dance routines, but certainly got me wondering about the performance to come. The stage was decorated with mirrors (things in the vein of “it’s my turn” written on them with pink pen) and colourful furry patches on the walls. An upholstered green arm chair sat upstage right, with a headpiece made from what looked like old tree branches. It was an interesting arrangement; reminiscent of a Big Brother House interior with all its sickly-sweet, oppressive primary colours. In fact, the dance itself reminded me of one of those activities the Big Brother contestants are often tasked with. Unfortunately, as I soon discovered, this setting did not lend itself to Greek tragedy.
The first half of Full Circle was very wordy and the actors rushed through their lines. But I was sympathetic, as they did have the daunting task of setting up the back stories for – as they have put it – ‘four of the most notorious women in Greek mythology’: Clytemnestra (Madeline Cunningham), Phaedra (Niamh Branigan), Medea (Lucy Avison) and Helen of Troy (Laura McKee). Four stories of bloodshed and betrayal, but with captivating shades of grey which make them almost relatable. Full Circle places the four characters in a sort of hell/purgatory where, every day, they are subjugated to the torture of each other’s company.
In some ways, the dialog of this first half reminded me of the opening ten minutes of a Game of Thrones episode: full of cheesy quips, often rather predictable metaphors and specific references to places and characters that, to a passing viewer, would be completely undecipherable. In Game of Thrones, this often doesn’t matter as the natural gravitas of the actors in the show entices you regardless of your understanding. The actors in Full Circle however were far too casual and ironic in their performances, and the impact of their stories was lost. I admire them for trying to apply a bratty and vulgar modern dialect to these figures of antiquity; it was a nice experiment. But it didn’t quite match the dialog. I’m not confident the writer has fully worked out if she wants to make parody or visceral drama.
Once the fulcrum of the piece – the aforementioned upholstered arm chair with the headpiece – had been properly introduced, that’s when things really started to get going. The characters would taunt and torture one another with the stories of their pasts, make alliances only to double cross each other in the next scene. All in the hope of one day being the one who gets to sit on this ugly green chair. It was an exciting ride and made way for some excellent pseudo-philosophical discussion about what the chair signifies for each character (a definite homage to the throne room scenes in Game of Thrones).
But I couldn’t help but feel like this pacey second half was tarnished by the first. This should have been an epic descent of four women who thought themselves to be cold and heartless tyrants, reduced now to frail and helpless creatures. But none of them had ever made me believe they were who they said they were, so their suffering felt emotionless and fake.
Full Circle has got the potential to be an excellent piece of theatre. Its premise is intriguing and has a lot of room for – as is ever so briefly mentioned in the play – the discussion of societal roles and gender inequality. But in order to tell such a story, one should take reference and inspiration from theatrical works that have already executed this kind of set up so well (for instance, Jean Paul Satre’s Huis Clos or Germaine Greer’s adaptation of Lysistrata) and shy away from the clichés of modern day epic fantasy. It’s clear that Madeline Cunningham is a bold and imaginative creator, and I hope to see more from Black Sheep in the future.