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Hypatia

Nerida Dickinson

Contemplative immersion in a passionate life of the mind.
Hypatia

Image: Hypatia at The Blue Room Theatre.Photograph (c) Marshall Stay.

Stepping out from the footnotes, Hypatia claims her place at the centre of her own story. Mathematician, teacher and astronomer, her 1600-year-old tale of staking a place in the male world of Alexandria contains striking parallels to contemporary issues.

Through the voices of five women, Hypatia’s many parts come together to step out of the box of ‘Beautiful Hypatia’, the romanticised muse concocted by male scholars through the centuries. Through movement, prose poetry and vignettes, her story moves inevitably from respected teacher and philosopher to persecution as a witch. Hypatia’s defiance in seeking education and self-fulfilment in the face of rising conservative Christianity is examined from the perspective of her internal monologue. Despite social pressure, both punitive and putatively supportive, her rejection of breeding womanhood with inevitable surrender to intellectual overshadowing by her husband leads to anger and destruction, but leaves her unbowed in her determination.

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As Hypatia, Kat Shaw inhabits the hero’s intellectual fascinations, passionate teaching, frustration at history’s portrayals and bitter humour in her eventual reduction to a plaything for men seeking to make their own reputations. Shaw entrances with her whole body to interpret Hypatia’s rich inner life, fires her lines with passion and perfectly times a rejection of marriage in a visceral moment provoking laughter from many female audience members. Her patient yet cutting responses to her male students in her academy who assume their right to speak and cut out her female student, Elpida, resonate with teachers and allow Shaw to demonstrate pragmatic human interactions in this necessarily flawed recreation of Hypatia as a person.

Courtney Turner plays the Christian convert student Nilos, bright but easily led by the persuasive Archbishop Cyril (Amanda Watson) in his quest for power. Turner’s expressive reactions to Hypatia provide relatable reflections of the trajectory of her public standing, at a personal level. Watson believably captures her congregation and manipulates Nilos, leading ritualised movements binding followers together and delivering compelling oratory. Ann-Marie Biagioni swaggers and blusters in her part of well-meaning Prefect Orestes, protective of Hypatia but unable to restrain his masculine aggression and pride in the face of Cyril’s antagonism. As Elpida, Hannah Evelyn provides contrast with Shaw’s idealism, her graceful capitulation to social expectations and despairing realism heightening appreciation for Hypatia’s resolve.

Chris Brain’s simple costume design allows free movement and rapid transition between characters, while the narrow, clearly delineated set cleverly uses a single bank of steps serve to depict a whole city. The linens hanging from the ceiling seem a superfluous detail until their surprise contribution to the dramatic end.

Butoh-inspired choreography fuses with elements of ancient Greek culture, classic white smears of body paint echoing the fragmented clay statue of Hypatia, and the counterpoint of separate and unified movements complementing the classic Greek chorus marking Hypatia’s philosophic musings on the nature of history and personal legacy. As movement mentor, Frances Barbe guides performers to reinforce the script’s theme of personal integrity with hypnotic movements that ebb and flow with changes in dramatic intensity within the narrative.

Michael Biagioni’s live music supports the action throughout, marked by confident command of his instruments and well-timed effects. In her lighting design, Rhiannon Petersen impresses with her subtle adjustment that distinguish between moments of internal monologue, historical chorus, straightforward narrative and Hypatia’s physical celebrations of mathematics and astronomy.

Like the white clay image breaking through the black theatre wall, Hypatia depicts both a woman emerging from the enforced obscurity of time and male-recorded history, and the orgy of death and destruction of the men who destroyed her life and her legacy. Shaw delivers a powerful performance based on a fascinating subject, enhanced by skilful collaborators in The Open Lid Ensemble to bring this overlooked history to overdue life.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Hypatia

Presented by The Open Lid Ensemble and The Blue Room Theatre
Producer: Liz Newell 
Dramaturg: Finn O’Branagáin 
Movement Mentor: Frances Barbe
Set & Costume Designer: Chris Brain 
Set & Costume Design Assistant: Nathalie Fuentes 
Sound Designer, Composer & Musician: Michael Biagioni 
Lighting Designer: Rhiannon Petersen 
Stage Manager: Sally Davies with Phoebe Pilcher 
Publicist: Samantha Maclean 
Devised and performed by Kat Shaw, Amanda Watson, Courtney Turner, Ann-Marie Biagioni & Hannah Evelyn
The Blue Room Theatre, Perth Cultural Centre
19 September – 7 October 2017

 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Nerida Dickinson is a writer with an interest in the arts. Previously based in Melbourne and Manchester, she is observing the growth of Perth's arts sector with interest.

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