Review: Wife

Image credit: Jack Needham

It has been often said by fuddy-duddy older relatives to promising young women that, “behind every great man is a great woman”, and Wife, an adaption of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, takes this statement quite literally.

Duffy’s highly critically acclaimed series of poems centres around the wives of famous historical and mythical men, and this adaption (by Ella Duffy, with the help of Carol Ann Duffy) takes the form of an extended monologue, delivered in a fantastic and highly emotive performance from Ella Duffy. The performance space, the corner of Corpus Playroom, is hemmed in both by the audience, and by a washing line strung with dresses and other women’s clothing from various historical periods. A table, covered by a gingham cloth and surrounded by pots, pans, and other paraphernalia of housewifery, is at the centre of the stage, but the audience to which Ella Duffy addresses each of her monologues is not only us, but also a chair placed in the audience-side corner of the Corpus stage. This chair seems to contain the husband of each character, but also perhaps some anonymous, external, interrogating force.

Robbie Taylor Hunt has created a truly touching tribute to women here. The monologue by Ella Duffy, lasting well over an hour, is wonderfully delineated by lighting, sound, and a masterful performance by Ella Duffy, as well as a ringbinder folder with the titles for each extract on it, which is flipped over by Ella Duffy at the end of each separate monologue. These monologues each tell the story of a different historical or mythical wife, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle Obama to the wife of Faust to ‘The Single Woman’. These monologue performances are wonderfully balanced by and blended with pieces of movement, recorded speeches by women such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Michelle Obama, and original compositions by Ella Duffy not contained within Carol Ann Duffy’s original text.

The wife of the ‘Beast’ ( of Beauty and the Beast) speaks in the play’s final monologue of a ‘line of ghosts’; women who have stood in the eyes of history in the shadow of their husbands. At times, our lack of knowledge of the lives of these women and their husbands can perhaps cast them as ghosts. However, this is part of this play’s beauty, in that it forces us to re-examine our casting of the characters of historical women in light of the men they were married to.

Perhaps the woman which this production most invites us to focus upon, although she is never mentioned by name and does not deliver her own monologue, is Hillary Clinton. Through the monologue which Ella Duffy delivers as Monica Lewinsky, and the holding up of a placard during the recording of a speech by Michelle Obama with the words “I’M WITH HER” carved into it, we are inevitably drawn to thoughts of Clinton. This forces us to reconsider our own attitudes and those of society towards women we seem to only view in relation to their powerful husbands, regardless of their own agency. This feels like a timely and appropriate reminder of our own involvement in the kind of erasure which Duffy lampoons here, and is a thoughtful and considered addition to this wonderful production.

This show is an incredible acknowledgement and exploration of the lives of ‘the captive beautiful’, the wives of these mythical and historical men. Of their individuality, their agency, their sexuality. A recognition, and a celebration, of these women’s existence as more than a ‘Mrs’, but as people in their own right.

9/10

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