Unwoman is a bold, exquisitely crafted work from a company at the height of its powers.
In the first part, an ensemble of pregnant performers in flowing dresses brush their locks languidly from an enchanted circle within a forest of hair. The silent embodiment of this hyperfeminised ideal comes wreathed in tedium and constraint.
A repetitive, gently chiming soundtrack marks the time. And as the waiting women onstage rebel in small ways against the shroud of passivity that envelops them, their situation resembles less a charmed sanctuary than a prison – a reminder that pregnancy for centuries led to a woman’s “confinement”, and that control remains embedded in the elaborate policing of pregnant women’s behaviour.
When the moment comes for one of them to live up to the myth and embrace birth as a transcendent experience with the calm of an Earth Mother, bathos descends. It’s a false alarm. An F-bomb is dropped, and the women cut loose with vigorous freestyle dancing.
The second part is a furious, savagely funny two-hander that flits between hilarity and horror story. Two women in medical chairs (Dana Miltins, Mary Helen Sassman) compare their reproductive histories as they wait for a procedure.
Rapid-fire snippets of no-holds-barred conversation cover miscarriage, termination, the choice of whether to birth “naturally” or otherwise and the judgements that go with them and, in lurid detail, the physical consequences of childbirth.
It’s a brilliant tragicomic double act, with perfect timing and delivery, that delves deep into the politics and pressures of pregnancy from an unnervingly sinister frame.
The final part, performed by Yumi Umiumare, unleashes the primal art of Butoh.
A pregnant woman on a chair with a noose around her neck rises and writhes against the rope, desperately straining to escape before succumbing to the agonies of birth. She extrudes rocks from her body before being sacrificially consumed, then re-emerging to scream: her wild ululations pitched between exaltation and bottomless despair.
Unwoman is a bold, exquisitely crafted work from a company at the height of its powers. Emma Valente and Kate Davis are geniuses. They’ve fused design and three styles of performance with sublime creative intelligence, weaving an interrogation of received ideas about women’s reproduction – set against the lived experience of it – into an unforgettable masterpiece.