Cassandra’s mother died last night while she was out a bar. She must now plan a funeral, plan her own and her mother’s outfits for said funeral, and write a fitting eulogy, which she can’t deliver as she’s woken up with no voice. And she cannot get out of the bath.
This is the premise of Quote Unquote’s captivating play, but over the next hour, many more layers emerge and intertwine. The grief being explored here is not an isolated thing; it’s about losing the person who shaped you, and therefore having to work out who you are now they are gone. And, as the title suggests, it is about voices.
Norah Sadava and Amy Nostbakken are vocal virtuosos, effortlessly weaving their voices around each other in acapella harmony, or else speaking in perfect unison of expression and pitch. The differences between these modes help to convey Cassandra’s fraught state of mind, and her perception of the way others are intruding on her grief. Together, the pair exquisitely portray Cassandra’s fractuous nature, with their fluid movement also allowing for seemless transitions of the character between the two performers.
Mad the play develops, we learn more about Cassandra’s mother – she, too, was a multifaceted woman, hence the difficulty of writing on “three-dimensional” eulogy, as Cassandra puts it. Is she the kind, perfect wife and mother? The confrontational, strong “Joan of Arc” figure? The weight-obsessed fashionista? Sadava and Nostbakken take it in turns to practice eulogies for all of these traits, always undercutting each other to deflate the image before it becomes too concrete.
But the search for the right words is, above all, an introspective thing. The pair highlight the issues that Cassandra faces as a woman trying to speak, with some catcalling sequences adding some disturbing comedy. They play on the stereotypes associated with women’s voices, for instance adopting high-pitched “girly” voices to ask for help from male members of the audience. A lot of technical information is thrown at us at full pelt, and it becomes increasingly clear that the creation of sound is a full-body phenomenon, and therefore how we speak and what we say have far-reaching implications.
The climax of the play comes when Cassandra seems to find the words she wants to say, and actually, they are more about her own crisis of identity, than about her mother. Once again, this is undercut – instead of being allowed to wallow in self-pity, she is forced to check her privilege, as a white, straight, cis woman from Canada, who makes art with public funding. We are reminded in that moment of all the voices that we don’t usually get to hear.
This was a quietly spectacular show, with original, insightful material supported by incredible vocal proficiency. Cassandra’s voice, channelled through the outstanding performances of Sadava and Nostbakken, was one that could not fail to resonate, and which deserved to be heard by a larger audience.