TNC Archive 2015
These Shining Lives
Dir. Kate Moore
Historical plays in which the audience is aware of the outcome can, in some ways, take away the sting or surprise. It takes great skill and care from theatre-makers to ensure that they are able to grab hold of their audience allowing them to come at the play as though this is the first time they are hearing the story. This is a rare quality in theatre that is almost never achieved as fully as this production but as soon as one enters the Studio Space something overtakes you.
Set in the 1920s America, a period that we romanticise greatly for its liberalism, bustling Jazz, prohibition and Al Capone, These Shining Lives tells the unforgettable true story of The Radium Girls, Catherine Donohue, Charlotte Purcell, Pearl Payne and Frances O’Connell who all worked and lived in Ottawa, Illinois for the Radium Dial Company. Their job was a simple, skilled, and rather envious one painting clock and watch faces using pure radium, being assured by the company that they had nothing to be worried about.
The audience listens to their story and who calmly informs the audience that though this might end like a tragedy it shouldn't be seen as one. Catherine, Anna Marx, married to Tom, James Barton-Steel, a construction worker and mother of twins is just 19 when she starts working at the Radium Dial Company.
She is quiet, somewhat reserved, but no pushover and Catherine’s first day at the company doesn’t go without issue with Charlotte, Julia Pagett, trying her best to intimidate the new starter. But all this is meant in jest and the four women forge a tight and trusted bond and friendship that becomes pushed when they each begin to grow weaker and sicker.
Simplicity is at the heart of director Kate Moore production that gives the play everything it needs to tell its powerful and truly affecting story. The staging is nearly bare, initially lit with fairy lights that flicker like a thousand little lives and the audience are constantly invited into the centre of these women’s world but at the same time, we’re kept at a distant. There is a fragility to their lives and their stories that at first seem too delicate for us to touch but the more they share the more we understand their struggle.
The strength of the play rests, in part on how the audience initially connects to Catherine and Marx is able to slowly draw out her character without compromising the tone or pace of the play. The relationship between Tom and Catherine is another central part that is masterfully brought to life by Marx and Barton-Steel who very much convey the truth of their characters love and determination.
There seems to be an intent by Moore to build up the tension without creating unnecessary drama that could have taken away from their story. This is a play about four courageous, individual and strong-willed women and the drama is perfectly paced that allows you to understand their lives and their fight without major bust-ups. When the tension does arise between Catherine and Tom or Catherine and Mr. Reed, William Baltyn, it is dispersed quickly and with ease. We are privy to these moments that add the essential drama but we’re not made to linger with them as they come and go.
All this culminates in a scene between the four women that is as richly honest as it is touchingly frank and leaves you breathless. At this moment Moore allows the four actresses to take their time and the scene unfolds slowly with the audience becoming locked in their inescapable pull. Now, however, the bounce that was in each of their voices and the spring in their steps have been replaced with a heavyweight of fear and uncertainty. One could hear a pin drop as Marx, Pagett, Sarah Hudson (Pearl) and Cathy Abbott (Francis) each begin to open up about the pain that they are experiencing.
Few moments are created in theatre that allows an audience to sit with slight damp cheeks and their jaw ajar as they see four wonderfully skilled actresses fully bring a scene together with ease. This ease seems unfair and unreal and is made somewhat easier by their incredible ability to make the audience believe their words and experience.
'Theatre in the round has many advantages the biggest being the intimacy that can be created between the company and their audience...'
The women retain their feminine resolve and dignity throughout. The politeness in the way they talk to each other is brought out greatly in later scenes and they each seem to have understood the importance of the voice that they are giving to these near antique voices which are always powerfully effective.
Both Darren Evans and Mark Ewins bring some urgency to the piece that is allowed to gradually shape their multiple characters to Melanie Marnich's developing tone. As the only representative of the company, Mr. Reed could be too easily put upon as the villain but Baltyn plays him with genuine care and at times a soft touch that shows a man who does possess a conscience.
Theatre in the round has many advantages the biggest being the intimacy that can be created between the company and their audience, which it must be added, should never be abused. How a company utilises their temporary space is sometimes overlooked which can lead to something of a messy show that is hindered by not being able to use their space well. Moore has made sure that even with the multiple entrances and exits that the integrity of the Marnich's text is always upheld.
Moore creates a dance towards the end of the play that puts the action firmly placed in a dreamlike state. The fluid movement and the emotionally charged final scenes give the play its final flights and nothing is held back.
These Shining Lives leaves a horrible and bitter taste in your mouth as you begin to leave the theatre. The paused that followed the final scene was indicative of the power of this play and for the briefest of moments, nobody wanted to break the silence. This bitterness turns to anger as you being to realise how little value corporations, back then and now, placed on the lives of their workers and the public.
What these women went on to prove is that we are all worth much more than this.