There is something special about Airswimming which is quite hard to describe. The running time of 110 minutes without interval is ambitious. The lighting is dim and suggests the shift of characters with a discreet variation of cold and warm shades. The set never changes. Two of the side walls are covered by a powder blue curtain and against the other two are aligned the audience seats. In the middle of the room is a white bathtub, two green chairs and three metal buckets. Very little actually happens on stage, the acting isn’t physically challenging and the two women spend most of the time sat or standing still. Nonetheless, I couldn’t take my eyes off them and the end of the performance arrived sooner than I thought.
It’s the year 1926 when Persephone (Lily Newbury-Freeman) is identified as a ‘moral imbecile’ and admitted into a mental institution. Dora (Emma Playfair) has already been there two years. They only spend an hour a day in the same room, whilst they are both in polishing duty, and through their conversation we learn about their guilt. Dora is there because her preference for male clothes and uniforms made her be seen as a witch. Persephone has been taken to the asylum by her own father, following an extramarital pregnancy. Both women will be finally released in the ’70, abandoned to a state of mental fragility and utterly unprepared to face a modern world that had changed so much in fifty years.
Charlotte Jones first play reflects the bitter reality of many women victims of the ‘1913 Mental Deficiency Act’, which offhandedly branded as a ‘moral imbecile’ whoever displayed a ‘mental weakness coupled with strong, vicious or criminal propensities, and on whom punishment has little or no deterrent effect’. In other terms, within the category was included whoever’s behaviour fell short of societal expectations and manifested inappropriate behaviours like relationships outside of wedlock or homosexual tendencies, to name just a few.
In her 1997 work, Jones finally gives these women a voice. Their most private feelings are acknowledged and presented to the public with striking simplicity. ‘Airswimming’ – as in wondering off with one’s imagination – is the only trick that helps to maintain sanity and come to terms with loss of freedom, degradingconditions and marginalisation.
The play is slow paced but well balanced. The lines refer to facts, dates, dreams and memories that drip relentlessly like drops of water in a Chinese torture. In addition, the claustrophobic tunnel of The Vaults theatre gives a sense of oppression that well suits the underlying sensation of unfair judgement.
What ultimately makes Airswimming so unique must be its intrinsic energy, drenched with all the lost hopes and lives of thousands of real women who have been victim of mere prejudice.
Review by Marianna Meloni