As a master of ceremonies in a gold lamé suit ushers us in, it is as if we are entering a circus side tent, maybe for a freak show. Sitting on a small stage in front of a red velvet curtain is an innocent-looking girl dressed as a ballerina and a lit-up sign informs us that her name is Lela. Cordelia Lynn’s 90-minute play is described as “a monologue”, which may not be technically correct, but it is performed mainly in the style of one. Lela begins by talking of her childhood, growing up in a mountain village as the youngest of three daughters, with a strict but loving father. The location and time are not specified, but clues imply South-Eastern Europe during the upheavals of the 1990s. Lela marries in her mid-teens and moves to a neighbouring country that becomes engulfed in conflict. The set and Lela’s costume have already primed us to expect something fantastical and everything that now follows is laced with incongruities and contradictions – Lela’s childlike image belies the adult horrors of her story; her accent suggests Northern England and not some war torn far off land; male voices interrupt her, giving different versions of events. It is as if Lela is not to be believed or trusted, she herself is of so little significance that she can be overlooked, ignored. Her married life begins in a comfortable apartment, but this world then shrinks to confinement in a small room and finally to just a mattress on the floor. She becomes a prisoner, a profit-making asset in her husband’s “business”, used and abused like a piece of meat to partake in unspeakable acts at a time when all semblances of decency are swept away by the turbulence of the war outside. She gives birth to a daughter and struggles to care for her while still entertaining her husband’s clients. Katie West’s Lela tells the story without forced emotion as if she is resigned to her ordeals, accepting the damage inflicted on her and finding contentment from the certainty that, whatever the future holds, it cannot be worse than the past. In a further contradiction, it is from the understated nature of this performance that the production gains much of its power. David Mumeni appears briefly as the husband and in four other roles, ranging from men who are barbaric to sympathetic. With long spells played in near or total darkness, the subtleties in Jude Christian’s direction blend perfectly with the starkness in Lynn’s writing to create an overall effect that is shattering. At the end, we seek consolation from knowing that the play is a fiction, only to find, almost inevitably, that it is based on a true story. Maybe now, someone will listen to and believe Lela.
Performance date: 12 September 2015