Review by Harry Bower
Life can be a lot sometimes. For Daphne, it’s all the time. In case you’re wondering, this play is nowhere near as literal as its title. Instead, The Woman Who Turned Into A Tree is a relatable self-exploration of what it’s like to be a woman making your way in a world dominated by men while alone and battling imposter syndrome, societal expectations, and your own mental health. While that all sounds a bit heavy the narrative is broken up by exquisite movement breaks, some excellent mirroring, and a book which raises a smile if never fully rousing a belly laugh from its audience.
The play is inspired by and has loose connections to the Apollo and Daphne myth. Daphne here is accompanied onstage throughout by a secondary character, which at first glance appears to be an alter ego. On further examination this is an extension of her personality. The second actor sometimes represents the opposite view or action, sometimes a re-enforcement of Daphne’s commitment to something, and sometimes an antagonist. Really, they are a vehicle to allow for some deeper meaning to what would otherwise be some two-dimensional scenes, and it is a vehicle used to exceptional impact. Most enjoyable was the physical theatre elements between the pair, their bodies entwining as one representing emotional turmoil or a dramatic change in fortune. At one point Daphne’s ‘other’ is literally put in a box – metaphor might be abundant, but this is a play not afraid to be direct, either. It never leaves the audience guessing too long before explaining its angle and is stronger for that.
The show opens with our protagonist faking it until they make it, working an insignificant and forgettable nightclub job. One day this threatens to change forever when she is asked to open up early in the morning for some interior designers coming to visit. This part of the plot is pretty thin - it is the promise of a better life for ‘classy’ Daphne which draws her in, and before you know it she’s at dinner with the designers and pretending she knows what she’s talking about. There’s an inner monologue though which won’t stop dragging her back down, and she is constantly reminded of her anxiety and paranoia that everyone’s talking about her: and ultimately, they are. Daphne slowly comes to terms with not actually wanting this life she had worked so hard to convince everyone she has. Slowly but surely the journey of discovering who she really is and how happy and free that makes her feel becomes clearer, led at all times by her father’s words of wisdom. “First you are a seed, then a tree, then a forest”.
Bathsheba Piepe and Ioli Filippakopoulou are both captivating in their roles, with a synergy and strong chemistry with each other which is essential to the style of performance attempted here – there are many moments the actors in lockstep. Daphne as a character is sort of unlikable, to be honest, and it is testament to this pair that the audience doesn’t boo her for being a giant cliché and out of touch with reality. The reverse is true, the story from ‘lost’ to ‘found’ (or challenge to redemption) is so convincing that by the end you really are rooting for Daphne to find her own way and come to terms with who she is at her core, once you strip away the protective layers. Both performances are empathetic and gentle in their execution which gives each more gravitas when a change in pace happens.
Kudos go to Ioana Curelea for their cool and gritty set design. A basic wardrobe, drinks cabinet, and perspex box might not seem the most inventive of set items but the design of each item fit perfectly with the story. The words painted on the furniture (‘slut’, ‘cheap’, ‘nobody’) reminds Daphne at every turn of her perceived reputation – the furniture remaining in full visibility even toward the end of the show. The original score is an unexpected treat, and it captures the mood perfectly.
As Daphne undertakes her personal journey she is forced to confront a number of home truths. Is what I’m wearing important? How do you respond when someone treats you poorly? How much of me is required to be malleable to match others’ expectations? Why is everything in our world so inherently sexist and toxic? The writing throughout the piece is sharp enough to never answer these questions directly, author Lisa Langseth instead leaving it up to the audience to have their own reflections on their own lives – and smooth enough that some topics come and go without feeling as though they are shoehorned in. That’s with the possible exception of the father’s illness which is never quite explained.
The Woman Who Turned Into A Tree is a triumph in introspective storytelling which is as thought-provoking as it is entertaining. It is relevant for anyone who feels as though they may be sinking at times under the weight of expectation or isolation and uses a clever mythology-influence to deliver its messages in a fun and unpredictable way utilising great creative movement. It is stronger for its direct and authoritative style which comes across as both measured and authentic, while still leaving room for its audience to interpret their own outcomes. Its cool set and funky soundtrack are matched by outstanding performances. If this show began a seed, it is well on its way to becoming a tree.
The Woman Who Turned Into A Tree plays at The Omnibus Theatre in Clapham until 22 April 2023. For more info and tickets visit: https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/the-woman-who-turned-into-a-tree/
Photos by Dan Tsantilis