The four women Marlowe plays in the course of a packed, enthralling 70 minutes, are all updated versions of Old Testament characters: Rahab, the prostitute who sleeps with the enemy and declares that rape is not all that bad after the first time; Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite and later David; Judith, who beheaded Holofernes; and Hannah, whose seven sons refused to eat pork and were dismembered and roasted to death for their pains.
Marlowe mimes a prologue of a woman in a grey greatcoat wrapping up a man’s suit in a war zone buzzing with contemporary news updates. Rehab is an urgent Cockney creation, surprising and rather shocking, like one of her many Steven Berkoff roles.
In a simple black jerkin and bell-bottoms, Marlowe segues into the soignée army wife who gets pregnant by her own husband’s senior officer with chill disregard for both protocol and her own sense of decency. Then comes Judith, in a Spanish fandango of allure and insinuation, as she propels herself towards the fatal tent. A tremendous display of haughty physical virtuosity gives way to the still, chill witness of Hannah as her sons are butchered in the name of God and their mother intones her undying belief.
The piece is played like a sonata in four movements, with clever light switches and good linking music, including Leonard Cohen’s sardonic, ironic “Hallelujah”. Two red bits of costume stand out from the dominant black like bloody gashes: the prostitute’s provocative brassiere, and the scarf that binds Hannah’s hands like manacles.
Marlowe makes no moral judgement on her gallery of heroic women. Their ingenuity, resilience, and survival instincts need no special pleading. The adagio of the last section is as moving and shocking as any horror movie, or Jacobean tragedy, without the blood and the grand guignol. The heinous crimes perpetrated are etched on the faces of all women down the ages.
- Michael Coveney