LIFT Festival’s The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women at Brixton House – review

The world premiere collaboration between Janaina Leite and Clean Break runs until 22 June

Athena Maria in a scene from The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women at Brixton House
Athena Maria in The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women, © Ellie Kurttz

The Trials and Passions of Unfamous Women is, I think, about the vagaries of legal judgement, and the system’s repeated failures to impose true justice. I think, but I’m not entirely sure.

Co-created by Clean Break, a theatre company that supports women who have been involved in the criminal justice system, the script draws on personal experiences and an ardent desire to create a safe space for exploration and discussion of them. But in implementing a total lack of judgement, they have also forgotten to make a clear point.

We are first introduced to four women as powerful, fantastical goddesses, dressed in shimmering gowns, floral corsets, dirtied angel wings and tall tiaras (beautifully designed by Alex Berry). As we’re directed around the room, we hear their bloody, powerful stories – beheading lovers, cutting off their own hands to avoid the fate read on their palms, “In the absence of love, I am comforted by pain”. But as the last monologue peters out, a dull voiceover begins to talk us through the set-up of a courtroom, and we are unceremoniously brought back to reality.

In modern society, these glamourous goddesses, who wreaked mythological havoc, aren’t sipping on the nectar of the gods or living amongst the stars. No, they are arrested, tried in a court of law and sentenced to prison. It’s a stark comparison of adjudication but an affecting one.

After that, the performers don white shirts over their gowns – a glimmer of freedom still visible beneath the ordinariness – and playact the machinations of a courtroom. Each member takes a turn to tell a little of their own lived experience of the criminal justice system. There are many moments of deep anguish, and the script poses some interesting questions, but there’s a severe lack of further exploration. Is a jury truly random? For one, you have to be on the electoral register, they point out. Fascinating, I think, and what else? But that’s the extent of the enquiry.

Where doctors and professors have discarded their uniforms, lawyers and judges still don their robes and wigs. What’s the effect of this? Again, a fascinating question, but once again it’s left hanging.

And maybe the most pertinent question of the evening, what of the familial context of the woman on trial? The impact that imprisonment will have on her family and on her as a mother? Some of the members’ stories touch more on this subject, but beyond anecdotes, the point is left unexamined.

Perhaps due to a reticence to delve too deep, the play fizzles out, and for the last fifteen minutes, the women are merely draped over chairs in their underwear, smoke machines working overtime, as they “paint with words”: “I see a woman who lifts her arm and the delicate skin of the underarm is exposed, and I see she must show this vulnerability to reach for the sky; I see a woman resting her head on the lap of another woman, in a moment of true tenderness; Women are the root of justice. We are justice.” Nice sentiments, but what have they to do with the criminal justice system?

Creators Janaina Leite and Lara Duarte have done well to allow the Clean Break members to lead the story, but it needs a strong dramaturgical hand to shape it into the forceful narrative it demands.