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Powerful & visceral

Hypatia, Open Lid Ensemble ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 20 September ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

Hypatia is inspired and inspiring storytelling. Presented by newly-established Perth-based independent theatre company Open Lid Ensemble, it delves into the life of Hypatia of Alexandria – the mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and educator murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD – to speak for women of the past 1600 years. “Why haven’t you heard of me?” the audience is asked in the opening minutes. “Because history was written by men.”

In the best tradition of physical theatre, Hypatia is a devised, ensemble work performed in the round. It is a masterful fusion of theatre, dance, music and visual art. From the soundscape, played live by Michael Biagioni, to the inventive set design by Chris Kydd Brain (from which blood pours in the climactic scene), everything about this production is exciting.

In an early scene, Hypatia (Kat Shaw) explains to her students (Courtney Turner, Amanda Watson, Hannah Evelyn and Ann-Marie Biagioni) that the earth spins on an axis and rotates around the sun. The theory offends a Christian student, who believes God had created the earth at the centre of the universe. Hypatia replies that people used to believe the earth was flat and that a great thinker applies critical thought and must be prepared to be proven wrong.

Hannah Evelyn. Photo: Marshall Stay.

Historical records indicate Hypatia was educated in Athens and became head of the Neoplatonist School in Alexandria in about 400, imparting her knowledge of Plato and Aristotle. Her father, Theon, was head of the Library of Alexandria, said to have contained a million scrolls of ancient history, literature and learning.

As political and religious conflicts mount, Hypatia knows trouble is coming. “The library will fall,” the performers repeat, ominously. When that time comes, Hypatia is distraught. Frantically, she draws in chalk on the stage floor, desperate to preserve some knowledge from the scrolls turning to ash around her.

Despite having a brilliant mind, Hypatia is not immune to the oppressive patriarchy and her lack of interest in marriage (despite her stunning beauty – shock!) fuels fear and suspicion.

Hypatia’s act of rebellion – following a condescending and degrading proposal – rates as one of my favourite theatrical moments. She reaches into her underwear, removes a blood-soaked pad and throws it on the floor.

News of this act is reported to the city’s archbishop, Cyril, who is trying to control her. “She wouldn’t bleed if she was healthy,” he says. The audience is already squirming but then it gets worse: “Women who worship the stars are witches.”

The beauty of the Butoh-style movements, etched in pain, touches the audience on a visceral level. Photo: Marshall Stay.

Cyril (Amanda Watson) stirs up moral outrage, convincing his flock that Hypatia’s unorthodox ideas are filling children’s minds with fear and uncertainty. “It’s time to take our city back,” he tells them. Cyril’s words and tone, a dog whistle to bigots and haters, are sadly all-too-familiar. (I suspect several in the audience wanted to head butt him.)

Although she knows her life is in danger, Hypatia refuses to leave the city. “If I am the last voice of reason in this city, I will shout until my voice is hoarse. I will fight because it is necessary,” she says.

This is why – despite being a tragedy – this production is inspiring. When Hypatia does not win the battle and is murdered and dragged through the streets by a mob, the oft-quoted activists’ slogan springs to mind: If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention. Hypatia does not inspire us in a warm-fuzzy, happy-ending kind of way, but instead invites us to reclaim our silenced history, educate women, take action and strengthen the sisterhood.

That Open Lid Ensemble can convey all of this – and can move an audience so profoundly – with little more than five bodies on a small stage, is extraordinary. That is power of physical theatre, I think. The beauty of the Butoh-style movements, etched in pain, touches the audience on a visceral level.  The considerable talents of dramaturg Finn O’Branagain and producer Liz Newell, too, have helped to shape this outstanding production.

Open Lid Theatre’s Hypatia is a thoroughly engaging experience. Highly recommended.

Hypatia plays the Blue Room until October 7.

Top photo: Courtney Turner and Kat Shaw in Hypatia. Photo: Marshall Stay.

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