Beautiful Evil Things is the new show from Ad Infinitum, a one-woman race through Greek myths. We talked to co-creator and performer Deborah Pugh
What’s Beautiful Evil Things about?
Beautiful Evil Things is a look at the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Medusa. It casts arguably the most infamous female gaze across a very masculine world and sifts through to unearth stories that have been otherwise buried by their familiar tellings.
How did it come about?
We wanted to make a solo show. The epic world of Ancient Greece is always an appealing one and it lends itself weirdly well to solo storytelling; there’s something about the hugeness of the story contained within one performer that makes it super potent. It can, however, be a bit bloke-heavy. George and Nir had so successfully adapted the Odyssey a number of years ago that it felt like a very natural fit to revisit the world and see what the women were up to. However, when I first started researching, I was quite disheartened. I felt the immediately accessible, well known stories didn’t offer much for the female characters, they certainly weren’t characters that I connected with or would want to be. You could be a ‘good’ woman and spend half a lifetime weaving and waiting for your husband to come home or ‘bad’ and a raging murderess, everything in between seemed to be a lot of wailing and suffering. Even reaching for modern feminist retellings, the main options for women seemed to be suffering. Ad Inf’s adaptation of the Odyssey was moving and epic but it was also really fun and exciting, you want to imagine yourself as Odysseus, being a hero. I wanted to make a piece that would be as smart, exciting, funny and fun to watch, with a female protagonist that you might actually want to be. I came across Madeleine Miller’s Circe which was a hugely satisfying read. Circe is an exile and, alone on an island, her story is allowed to grow independently without the constant influence of men around her, she’s at the centre of her story, making stuff happen not having stuff done to her. And THEN we found Pandora’s Jar by Natalie Haynes, who goes back to the original Greek texts and finds the fleshed out, complex and brilliant female characters within them who, through centuries of translation have been reduced, diminished or almost vanished entirely.
Are there other stories that didn’t make it in?
So many! As is the case with Greek myths, the second you start to poke around in one story you realise it’s intertwined with a dozen more each as interesting and important as the next. I would have loved to touch on Penelope, wife to Odysseus and credited as being every bit his intellectual equal yet while he’s off making a hero of himself, slaying cyclopes and shacking up with nymphs the story she gets landed with is a 20 year stint, stuck at home waiting. What a waste of a great woman.
Which character is the most fun to play?
Embodying 13 Amazons at once is quite exhilarating….To be honest, I’ve got such love for all of the women we encountered making this show- Penthesilea is a power house, Cassandra the most wonderful weirdo with her temple full of pet snakes, but closest to my heart has to be the glorious guardian Gorgon: Medusa, she’s all the smart and funny I wish I could be without a script and several weeks of rehearsal.
What will the audience leave feeling or having learned?
To look at who’s telling the story, the power of the narrator is immense and enduring. Medusa’s story is often framed as ‘monster slain by hero’ but alter your angle slightly, look again and it becomes the story of a pregnant woman murdered in her sleep by man she’d never met. Medusa’s powers of petrification were forced on her by the gods as punishment for being assaulted by Poseidon (that’s right, he assaults her, she gets punished) once she realised the destruction her powers could cause she hid herself away in her cave, put herself into exile so as to cause no harm. Perseus came hunting for her, decapitated her as she slept, then used her severed head to wreak havoc. The story doesn’t need much interrogating before the roles of hero and monster start to need reassessing. I’m not for a second claiming that this is an unbiased retelling of the stories- decapitated gorgon is quite a specific lens through which to view anything but when we started to cast Medusa’s gaze a little more broadly, across some well worn classics, and imagine which characters she’d be drawn to we were rewarded so many rich takes on familiar tales. We figured she’d have little sympathy for gods and heroes having fallen foul of both of them, she’d focus on the outcasts, the overlooked, the maligned, the women. Once we moved all the blokes aside a bit we found a wealth of women’s stories that absolutely blossomed once they were given space. I’d love people to leave the theatre buoyed by the wave of incredible women that have come before.
Beautiful Evil Things opens at Tobacco Factory Theatre 18 October and tours throughout Autumn and Spring, for more information visit https://ad-infinitum.org/beautiful-evil-things-touring-dates