Anguis is a fascinating play. A doctor who specialises in viruses is recording an interview for a podcast: a sort of Desert Island Discs in which the subject is allowed to choose their five favourite songs. The guest is the great pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra.
This new script from writer Sheila Atim is bursting with ideas. The power of story to shape history. The assumption that we each write our own history. The role of women. The role of gender stereotypes.
That said, the first thing that will strike you about this show is its glorious set. Stylised and yet perfectly fit for purpose. Careful sound design nicely documents the doctor’s disintegrating mind. And director Lucy Jane Atkinson makes good use of the compact space.
This is a lovely elegant, elegiac script full of smart observations. The relationship between the two confident, successful women, ostensibly with nothing in common, is fascinating in the unfolding. And the parallels are interestingly drawn. Are the challenges faced by a woman leading the way in contemporary science who then makes a mistake, really so different to those tackled by a woman leading a country into battle at a time when the world’s politics are dominated by men?
Doctor Taylor (Janet Kumah) is focused, professional and vaguely riled by her superstar guest until she finally unravels. Paksie Vernon is superb as Cleopatra. Embodying a legendary queen is a tough gig for an actor but Vernon is entirely self-possessed, making her petulance at her two lovers, Caesar and Mark Anthony, and her delightful mirth at the tale of the asp, all the more surprising. Her voice is stunning and her songs impressively ear-wormy. David (Peter Losasso), the sweet, sensitive studio tech – until he turns steely prosecutor – is a beautiful counterbalance to the swagger.
With so many ideas jostling for attention, it’s tricky to know exactly what Atim’s message is. Certainly compassion. Forgiveness. Something about imposter syndrome? The disappointing timelessness of the female struggle for equality. “People are fragile,” offers Cleopatra, “we need to get better at looking after them.” An interesting piece that may benefit from a narrower focus but makes for interesting viewing for all that.