The Studios 2018: Leda and the Rage (Review)

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Feathers fly hard and fast in this affecting swansong of agency over one’s own body, and the long road to recovery. 

When one has been through a sexual assault, she is not merely a victim, but a survivor. But even when the deed has been done, deep scars are left behind, often leaving survivors lost, confused and unable to come to terms with the immense, immeasurable pain and loss that comes with the trauma.

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In Leda and the Rage, Edith Podesta attempts to find a way to express that seemingly impossible trauma, and once again proves herself to be one of the smartest and most capable theatremakers today, having crafted a masterful juggling act between statistics, fiction and anecdote. Leda and the Rage is many things at once – it begins as an art history lecture, as Edith takes audiences on a journey through glorified depictions of rape in classical art, from the Biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders to of course, the eponymous Leda and the Swan, charting the centuries of repression and prejudice exacted against rape victims in denying them a voice and their truth, and the unending battle that rages on even today. This is juxtaposed against a very real history of legalities surrounding rape and punishment, and art and history come together to depict a truly disturbing portrait of the silence many survivors have and continue to be afflicted by. This is made all the more visceral, as Edith fully incorporates two sign language interpreters into the performance, their expressive hands and faces giving physical emphasis to the script.

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Amidst these more academically inclined scenes, Edith introduces a sharp personal edge to her art history professor character, a sexual assault survivor herself robbed of sleep as her mind continues to race each night. Although initially reluctant and combative, she eventually resorts to seeing a therapist (Jeremiah Choy), and takes us on a vivid journey into the claustrophobic mindscape she lives through each day. Wong Chee Wai’s white backdrop becomes a canvas on which Brian Gothong Tan’s hellish, monochrome backgrounds come to terrifying life – we see a tree made of writhing, disembodied hands, and are even introduced to a literal version of hell. Every thought is tripwired to trigger a disturbing memory – a reflection on the myth of Hades and Persephone leads to a discussion of the difficulty of sharing about sexual assault from family members, for example, and dream and reality itself become muddled.

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Edith’s script is anger fuelled poetry; in rebelling against Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it goes through its own transformation, and she moves rapidly from one word association to the next, with some of the most elegant, witty wordplay to grace the stage in years (miraculously, she manages to link ‘mute’ to ‘transmute’). But surprisingly, the most powerful moments in the play are when she moves from the subject of Greek myths to rape myths. As Jeremiah Choy lists a number of rape myths, many of which focus on victim blaming, Edith’s character recalls her own petrification in reporting the assault, unable to feel safe in the presence of an oily policeman who couldn’t care less about her, and this creates a distressing all too familiar moment where a survivor feels utterly powerless and completely alone. It is the primal relatability of this moment that tears at audience’s hearts, and the cruel irony of how the fictions of rape myths are perpetuated through belief in their false truths.

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But even amidst the pain, the rage and the complete sense of powerlessness, Leda and the Rage ultimately leaves us with a message of hope. Where a pool of water once serves as the site of bad memories past, Edith’s final moments onstage see it reclaimed as her own and suture her wounds, as she uses its waters to cleanse herself, and embark on the first steps to her long journey of healing ahead. Through the rich tapestry of stories, images and anecdotes Edith has woven, Leda and the Rage becomes a complex, affecting work that speaks to and for the tumultuous history of rape survivors, and achieves the difficult task of expressing that which is seemingly too painful and complicated to. This is a work that demands to be seen and heard, and audiences will no doubt be all the better for it.

Photos by Crispian Chan, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Performance attended 26/4/18

Leda and the Rage plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 26th – 29th April. Tickets available from the Esplanade

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