Sometimes the simplest format is the best way to stage a Fringe show: no props, no music, no amplification, basic lighting, just the performers and the audience. That said, you need a sack-load of talent to pull it off, and it could be argued, a lot of confidence.
This piece of theatre begins with a mime: a single woman looking at herself in a mirror with a critical eye, questioning her body, her appearance. Soon she is joined by her three friends, who try to cajole her into singing a pop song, which she eventually joins with.
Thereon, all four form an ensemble in which they present their stories with the polished delivery, finesse, and passion of a string quartet. That tiny hint of lack of self-belief at the start simply foreshadowed the message of what was about to be voiced: a tour-de-force presentation of the various obstacles they face throughout every aspect of their lives.
From the work-place to relationships, body-shape and partner abuse, music, and their position in their own community, to the #metoo experience, each experience is presented with humour and pathos in equal measure. With great use of repetition, the women perform various mantras throughout; in particular how, in the face of abhorrent behaviour, they have learned to “nod and smile, nod and smile.”
The rhythm and timing in everything they do, whether chanting, singing, or delivering lines in perfect unison; in twos, threes, or four-part ensemble, each is impeccable and, therefore, powerful. Four voices speaking as one. In one section, a chanted line is turned into a Bach-like fugue, so that different words pop in and out of the texture.
At what could be a climax, all four face the audience and call out in powerful unison: “Are you really our biggest oppressor?” And the question has to be: are we, the audience, society, the world, complicit and responsible for the ill-treatment of these women?
I should point out that there is no anger in what we are hearing. There is passion; the sort that comes out of genuine experience. And at the end, it was quite clear that this incredibly powerful piece of theatre completely drew the audience into sympathy, if not empathy.
In a packed house, sold-out every night so far, I experienced a very rare thing on the Fringe: a standing ovation. Apparently, not the first.
It’s very difficult to review something of such quality without giving too much away. I scribbled some of the best bits in my little book, wondering which lines – given the sharp eloquence of the script – I could quote. But to do so would give too much away, not least, spoil the effect. But there is something else I should point out about these women…
Well, I’m not going to, because I refuse to classify or judge people according to the colour of their skin. As they say: “We are Queens, and we don’t need you to crown us.”
Queens of Sheba, 18.50pm, Underbelly, Cowgate Venue 61, until August 26th