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Review of Savage Heart at The Pleasance - A masterful blend of realism and symbolism

Rated 🍯🍯🍯🍯

Production image of Savage Heart at Pleasance Theatre
Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

Savage Heart is an ambitious and daring piece of theatre that tackles important issues with sensitivity and courage.

It is not an easy or comfortable watch; it is haunting, raw and visceral.

The play is set in the Victorian era and revolves around four fallen women. The women live and carry out domestic chores, presumably as servants at a wealthy household, or so it appears at first. However, as the play progresses, the setting looks less like a house and more like a grim institution of some kind.

The exact nature of this institution is never clear as we do not see the people who run it. The bee thought at first it was an oppressive mental asylum or prison, but became less certain when it saw that the institutionalised women have come to not only accept their entrapment but also proactively take care to onboard and initialise any new prisoners to the life there. In a completely matter-of-fact and nonplussed fashion, at that. Bizarre and befuddling, but also grim and ghastly, Savage Heart is highly evocative.

Savage Heart speaks to us through puppetry, movement, music, costumes and facial expressions

The play is a silent one, in that the characters do not have any lines. Instead, Savage Heart speaks to us through puppetry, movement, music, costumes and facial expressions. The women do various domestic chores and attend church with the sort of strict routine and regularity that makes the bee wonder if the institution is a rehab centre of some kind, or worse — an indoctrination centre for women with undesirable beliefs that need to be rooted out.

The story flicks back and forth between the women's day-to-day lives and routines, and reflections on how each woman wound up there and what she had to sacrifice or lose along the way. These reflections are subtle — the audience gets a gist of the women's circumstances but not a play-by-play of the sequence of events leading to their incarceration. The bee was initially confused but later came to appreciate the subtlety. The scenes only set the tone — surreal, gothic and chilling — and leave the details for the audience to imagine or infer, with the end result being that whatever the audience imagines is almost certainly likely to be more grim than anything the actors could have conveyed explicitly. Theatrical genius.

What a masterful blend of realism and symbolism

[Spoilers ahead]

Some stories have a metaphorical significance, such as the woman who fell victim to temptation and was cast out of Eden. Temptation is depicted both literally, as a shiny apple that draws the woman away from her work, and figuratively, as the woman, in her pursuit of the apple, follows it behind a curtain, and we see silhouette of what appears to be sexual intercourse between tempter and temptee, after which the woman is brutally thrown out from behind the curtain, suggesting a betrayal by the tempter for her vulnerability to temptation.

Other stories are more literal and realistic, such as the woman who repeatedly suffered miscarriages, stillbirths or deformed births. Deemed incapable of fulfilling her role as a woman, she is ostracised and exiled away to this institution as she no longer serves a purpose for civil society. Another story is about a visionary, perhaps even a revolutionary who dared to speak publicly about her beliefs and instigate change, only to be arrested and exiled.

[Spoilers end]

Production image of Savage Heart at Pleasance Theatre
Photo credit: Rah Petherbridge

The set design is simple but effective, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere with dim lighting and minimal props, interspersed with flashes of light and colour to contrast the women’s memories, hopes and dreams from the dark and oppressive atmosphere of the institution where they are now incarcerated. The sound design is also impressive, using eerie noises and haunting melodies to create tension and mood.

However, the play is not without its flaws. The bee found it rather difficult to follow what was happening at times. The narrative is fragmented and disjointed, requiring a lot of concentration and inference from the audience. Some sequences seemed to drag on for too long, such as the repeated stirring of the pot or washing of the clothes. Although these sequences were meant to convey the exhausting, mundane and tedious nature of these women's rather plain existence, the bee wonders if the message could have been conveyed without subjecting the audience to the same ennui.

In summary, the actors deliver stunning performances that convey the emotions and struggles of each character with authenticity and sensitivity. However, the play could benefit from some editing for clarification and coherence.

Four stars.

Watched March 2023 at The Pleasance, London


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