Face to Face Review: Martha Gellhorn – The Troubles Seen (Lost Theatre, London)

Martha Gellhonr (second from left) and Ernest Hemingway (second from right) with unidentified Chinese officers.

Martha Gellhorn (second from left) and Ernest Hemingway (third from right) with unidentified Chinese officers.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A powerful and entrancing mini-biography about a most remarkable woman, with an even more remarkable performance.

Overview

Performer, Sian Webber, and solo theatre writer extraordinarie, Jack Klaff, team up to create this minuscule history play about one of the world’s most notable war correspondents of the 20th century, who also just happened to be one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway.

Writing

Klaff is no stranger to adventurous solo pieces, after his barnstorming performance of his biography of Sir Isaac Newton at last year’s festival. Now, teaming up with Webber, Klaff turns to exploring an iconic female member of the species.

What’s most spectacular about the writing is that, for want of having had the privilege to know Gellhorn in real life, this is the closest you’ll ever get, as what Webber and Klaff present what could be a dead-ringer for her if you were none the wiser. Gellhorn, as a character, is authoritative as you can get: gushing with brash confidence and American cocksure that, worthy of the place on the pedestal that history has given her. Natural but bolshy, Klaff and Webber’s writing has created a behemoth that is as believable as is beguiling.

Most interesting here is a minimum use of Klaff’s maxim that “everyone is a crowd”. Webber is only made to play an entirely separate character only the once during the entire show, turning her stance and stature to a more timid second-hand testament in explaining why the subject of her marriage to Hemingway was something to be skirted around with Martha. It had the potential seem out of place, but somehow it didn’t at all stick out, adding a nice, if not brief, garnish of variety.

Performance

Webber is absolutely indomitable in her role as Gellhorn. In fact, you could absolutely believe that she could be Gellhorn herself, in just how effortless she is in the role. Specifically, her interaction with the audience as an integral, living, and responsive part of the production is stupendous. It’s like you’ve got your own private audience with the legend herself, and you’re just as an important part of the conversation as she is. You do end up listening rather than speaking, but you feel that’s your choice rather than what you’re expected to do. Making Webber’s Gellhorn even more realistic are myriad little performance nuances she adds, such as the opening of the top of her blouse when she gets a little hot, or the hesitation in putting down her glass of water whilst she digests the accounts she’s just revisited. It all seems natural and completely spontaneous rather than something rehearsed, and is an epiphanous example of performance sheen.

The most fascinating facet of her performance is just how straightforward she is as she recounts her life: there isn’t any unnecessary exaggeration or drama where there so easily could have been. But that’s not to say that it ever comes across as unfeeling, as behind it all are always the little spikes of horror and trauma of the things she has witnessed, from the Spanish Civil War to the carnage of the WWII Normandy beach landings. Webber does a marvellous job of balancing this bullish air of glamour against the underlying distress and dissatisfaction of her witness of human beings behaving at their worst or most resilient. Whilst it seems like a little thing, it really encapsulates Gellhorn as a person and as a historical figure: someone who reported what they saw, accountable and measured, but not without profound personal contemplation and reflection.

Verdict

The final result is a wholly engrossing, elating, and surprisingly personal experience. If you didn’t know who Martha Gellhorn was before this, you are left feeling educated and in awe. If you did, you feel like you’ve come into contact with a living, breathing, and fascinatingly palpable legacy that you can’t help but be completely involved in with every single syllable Webber produces.

[youtube http://youtu.be/kIzADrty8rg]

Martha Gellhorn – The Troubles Seen was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, 6th– 11th October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.

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