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A CurtainUp London Review
Billed as "What the British Museum didn't tell you. . " at the exhibition of the life size Terracotta Army from the tomb of the Emperor, Qin Shi Huanggdi, is this curiosity of a play by Bryony Lavery. More Light is set inside the tomb of this Chinese Emperor where alongside the terracotta army, many of his human servants and artisans have been buried alive to accompany the Emperor into the next life. The group of courtesans who accompany him are those of his wives who did not bear him a son. The anomaly of course is that we are told that none of these women have experienced childbirth; perhaps those that bore him daughters were instantly put to death in that grisly sexist society?
Led by an articulate courtesan named More Light (Catrina Lear) who also directs the play we hear much about the women's life while the Emperor was still alive. More Light is not just the narrator but a leader as the rest of the nervous women tend to squeal and recoil in unison. The women are sweetly named, Playful Kitten (Jenny Harrold), Love Mouth (Eugenia Caruso), Moist Moss (Caroline Daniel), Little Friend (Lydia Emerson), Many Treasures (Sandy Foster) and Pure Joy (Judith Musil) and are dressed identically. They have spent their life as art, pleasuring the Emperor and are ill prepared for survival in their silks, white makeup and bound feet.
The first issue for the women is their own survival for which they take an extraordinary decision — you will have seen the play advertised as "a tale of life, death, sex, art and cannibalism". This act of rebellion is the first of many as they unbind their feet and no longer have to teeter about taking tiny steps. They pass the time folding origami flying birds as they chorus hypnotically about their past skills in the art of lovemaking. The intrusion of an escaped convict (Philip McGinley) into the inner sanctum presents another challenge to their survival and the hope of a way out.
The simple set decorated with bronzes and burnished metal, the women dressed with black kimonos and red cummerbunds and fans with the embellished imperial robes of the dead emperor laid out on his tomb add to the atmosphere. Bryony Lavery's play is a rhythmic and fascinating glimpse into the life of these courtesans but encouraging as we see these captive women who have led constrained but provided for lives, resourceful when faced with starvation and death.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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