Review: 'No Place For A Woman' at Theatre 503

Cordelia O’Neill’s No Place For A Woman begins in total, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face darkness. The sudden shift from the glow of the house lights under which I’d been checking my phone to utter blackness sends the audience plunging, headlong in an abyss. Elliot Rennie's cello plays eerily, and as the lights begin to come up – just enough to be able to make out figures – we’re somewhere else. There we stay for the next 75 minutes, and not for a second do I for one want to be anywhere else.

The same can’t be said for the characters, both trapped. Two women stand on the stage, separated by a shaft of light as if through a crack in a door. If one is on the side from which the light is shining, it’s Annie (Ruth Gemmell), a society woman organising a party. If one is in the dark, it’s Bella (Emma Paetz), whose ballet lesson is intermittently interrupted by something unknown, but terrible. It becomes clear that Annie is the wife of concentration camp commandant, and Bella a prisoner in the camp.

The two women live side by side, Annie just outside of the camp, yet their lives are apparently different in the extreme. It's only when Annie’s husband, Frederick, plucks Bella from the camp to dance at their party that the lines between the two women begin to blur. Sarah Readman’s lighting unifies them, giving them equal weight, despite the separating beam. Director Kate Budgen has the characters switching places as they speak, stepping over the shaft of light, dissolving the boundary further. When they break from their reports to plead with Frederick, they stand side by side, arms touching, speaking as though to each other.

Although the course of the two women's lives differs greatly, they're connected by their desperation to be loved and to live. Gemmell plays Annie with such anxious brittleness its hard not to imagine her spine, so straight she should herself have been a dancer, cracking and resetting itself as she adapts to her new surroundings. Paetz, by contrast, is elastic as Bella, bending herself to survive. When they speak in the closing moments, it's with mutual understanding of what binds them: their survival and, now, their freedom. 

See the play until May 27th.
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Photo credit: Jack Sain