Turning a tomb in which they have been enclosed alive into a room of their own, Bryony Lavery’s brilliant More Light, follows the first Emperor of China’s concubines as they eke out of an enforced sacrifice, a strange, sepulchral freedom.
Within his elaborate necropolis, designed and made by the greatest inventors, mathematicians and artists in China, the emperor has ordered that he be attended in death by seven concubines that 'have borne him no sons’, and it is within this deathly chamber they initially kneel, pliant as they were during their leader's life, cowered and resigned to following his fate. That’s until they stumble upon the idea of eating him.
Indeed it is with a strain of black humour that this piece, a revival of the original National Theatre production, questions the male-centric interpretations of art and history, as these paramours - tentatively at first and then voraciously - turn cannibals for their own survival while shedding the accoutrements of servitude: they unbind their feet with glee and shed restrictive clothing as if shedding the memory of their previously proscriptive lives.
But director Catrina Lear’s production is not overwhelmed by message and its inventive staging flows at a fair pace (running time is around an hour); the women displaying synchronised movements that skilfully evoke their dreams, fears and sex with the emperor himself. We deftly move between inner and outer chambers with subtle lighting changes, as one of the women, out to find more ‘food’ among the multitudes of men in other parts of the complex, finds out they are not the only ones alive. Falling upon a trapped convict, the eponymous More Light is faced with the dilemma of escape - relinquishing what independence she has gained thus far - to a life in the outside world.
Those who recently saw the National's Death and the Kings Horseman and were perturbed by the ebullience with which the protagonist embraced ritual sacrifice could see a useful counterpoint in these women who attempt to avoid death at all costs. But like the former this spritely play attacks a crude hegemonic worldview and as the ladies, observing their surroundings, ask “what is art?” we are made to question the reverence for such narcissistic monuments.
Its symbolism avoids triteness and its brevity is an asset with this tight production’s wonderful cast weaving gracefully and humorously through its subject matter; even managing to explain away consuming the sovereign, wryly remarking, “well, we’ve always eaten royally”.