An activist and politician meet in a forest guest house, here they partake in a closed debate ran by Jai (Antony Bunsee) who wishes to relaunch his career with his new channel following a very anticipated and most likely heated debate between the two. Activist, Mehrosh (Hussina Rama) enters anxiously as she never intended to become as admired as she is and in this has lost control of her security. The politician, Bina (Tania Rodrigues) enters with assistant Scherezade (Ulrika Krishnamurti) confident in her ability to intimidate this young woman until she’s squeezed dry of any lingering confidence she might have left. Bina’s goal is to ‘convert’ Mehrosh from activist to politician through threats to family and the promise of safe security. Mehrosh is disgusted by the fake glamour of politics and seems distant but over the course of this evening, she becomes more brittle and susceptible to Bina’s attacks. Meanwhile, the forest guest house they are setting up for the debate has a power cut, a roaming leopard and bad lighting which sends Jai a little crazy from pressure. Unfortunately, we never make it to see the debate or what they are debating in fact, but we see plenty of pressured conversations between the two women about a variety of problems they disagree on. Bina’s plan starts to come to fruition once Mehrosh’s brother is getting arrested and she offers her guidance and mentorship if she is willing to follow in her footsteps and sell herself to politics.
Scherezade’s character serves as some comedy relief as a stressed intern who cares for her parents and disabled brother. She is also manipulated by Bina who now sees herself as a kind of mentor or God to the young women and in the power surge, uses Scherezade’s life story in her opening speech and pushing all boundaries of privacy in a workplace.
There’s plenty of themes to explore in this piece regarding this generation’s difficulty in privacy, social media presence and cancel culture. I would say there’s almost too many themes that the main message gets swamped by the ever rising issues Bina seems to bring to the table. I’m also really unsure about the overall world of the characters and the two leading debaters back stories that have led them to the point of fame. The play takes place over one evening, so we see the steady decrease of confidence in real time, the ending resulting in Mehrosh taking form of the ‘leopard’ (an early metaphor used of a caged animal) and attacking Bina. Seeing her nature change under this pressure, she gives in to Bina’s wishes. I think with a little extra context of character background and more detailed information on what they are debating exactly would have seen this ending to be more intense and tragic that she inevitably became defeated but from the start I felt less confidence for the student in not having a greater understanding of why we were here.
It’s an interesting take on women in politics which is definitely less represented, writer Deepika Arwind has presented three similar women all representing different chosen lives. Bina chooses to suppress and sell her trauma to gain her top spots in parliament, Mehrosh uses her youth and rage to gain social media presence and Scherezade revealed as a smaller community activist who fought for her brother’s right to accessibility. All starting out as genuine, passionate women for change but eventually all forced to sell themselves out for the sake of others, money or security.
I was left with lots to think about but wanting more gaps in the story to be filled. There were many ‘one liners’ presented to the audience which made me question if the last one liner wasn’t actually the ‘point’. A lot of the performance was out towards the audience, which is where the forest was located. Sometimes this felt quite rehearsed, quite like a political speech which in moments worked but I really urged for some smaller, naturalistic moments between characters to explore their humanity and see the damage of what pressure and society has done to them.
Interesting and thought-provoking but I wanted more chill and horror.
Playing until 25th November, https://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/productions/phantasmagoria/
Reviewer: Alice Rose
Reviewed 7th November 2023
North West End UK Rating: