Review: Iron (2003) at the Royal Court

When going to a play called Iron (presented in early 2003 at the Royal Court, London), one hardly knows what to expect. Iron: it lends itself to phrases like ‘ruling with an iron fist’, iron bars, iron will, even ironing one’s clothes. All of these are useful as one mulls over exactly what takes place within the play. For Iron is, in the end, not a production whose aims and devices were focused on entertainment or providing a means of escapism for the audience. It was engaging, provocative, a piece which stayed with me long after I had left the theatre.

Scottish playwright Rona Monro has produced a psychologically provocative play in Iron. The set craftily re-creates the ambience of its prison locale, with mute greys as the colour for the bars, the floor, and the staircase, conveying the drabness and colourlessness of the world of the play. A hollow echoey soundtrack of doors slamming shut often punctuates the action on stage.

A woman, Fay (played by Sandy McDade), has been imprisoned for killing her husband, and is now serving a life sentence. After 15 years, her daughter Josie (Louise Ludgate) shows up for a visit for the first time, anxious and almost desperate, with no memory of her life before her father’s murder, and with a barrage of questions about what happened, who she is and where she comes from, which she hopes reuniting with her mother will answer.

What sustained my interest, and what I believe drives the play forward, was the unanswered questions of why Fay killed her husband; whether we could pin her as good or evil; and whether or not she and her daughter could salvage some sort of relationship. Fay avoids the question of how and why she killed her husband for most of the play, preferring her interactions with her daughter to revolve around living vicariously through Josie, her one contact with the outside world. As Josie and Fay become closer, and Josie slowly begins to regain memories from before her father’s murder, Munro carefully navigates the complexity of Fay’s character. Sheila, the female prison guard, paints her as a manipulative and evil woman who is essentially self-serving and ruthless. Fay herself comes across impulsive, moody, emotional, wilful (an iron will?) with a capacity for spite, tantrums and manipulation to get what she wants. She seems to be an earnest and endearing but petulant and wilful child in a tall, lanky woman’s body. Sheila also uncovers that, as innocent and helpless as Fay may seem, there is a possibility that she may have been too selfish and afraid to make contact with her daughter or ever take responsibility for the murder of her husband.

McDade plays Fay with a great deal of emotional honesty and with a tremendous amount of physicality, conveying Fay’s excitability and seemingly endless flow of nervous energy. At no point does McDade play her as anything but humanly complex, never giving the audience the option to condemn or canonise her in any indisputable way. The lack of emotional manipulation on the part of Munro and McDade is almost Brechtian in how it allows the audience to remain completely engaged yet maintain emotional objectivity about the characters onstage. In fact, Fay’s childlike excitement and neediness when Josie visits is so well played by McDade that it is almost uncomfortable, alienating, to watch. The intimacy which grows between them, the mutual dependence, is also slightly disturbing. It is as if one were watching the beginnings of an unendingly unhealthy co-dependent relationship, where neither one of them is quite in control of themselves or their lives.

Helen Lomax, meanwhile, plays Sheila, a single mother whose lover has left her, and who feels an ambivalent identification with Fay. Lomax’s performance is understated, but impactful. In her looks, gestures, utterances and silences, she conveys a simultaneous resentment and sympathy for Fay. Like McDade, she does not shy away from embracing the complexities of her character. Life and people are not that simple, and the author and performers seem to clearly acknowledge and respect that. Lomax’s physical presence on stage, dressed in an androgynous prison warden’s uniform (equally as colourless as the set), also stimulates thoughts about a woman fitting in to a man’s world – not just in this prison context, but in trying to achieve autonomy and confidence despite lurking misogyny in both relationships and in the work place. She seems a woman determined to be independent, but who is still vulnerable and susceptible to developing sympathies for a fellow woman and condemned criminal like Fay.

Interestingly, it is the play’s lone male character, George (Ged McKenna), the other prison guard, who seems the most invulnerable within this emotionally charged prison atmosphere. It is from his lips that the more explicit sexual politics of the play is revealed, when George tells Josie that while women get life for murdering their husbands, men get far lighter sentences for murdering their wives. He points out that the justice system seems to have an impartial view about the value of male and female lives. What is disturbing is that the female characters, and perhaps even female members of the audience, may have internalised these patriarchal value judgments. Furthermore, Sheila’s ambivalence implicitly deals with an issue which has plagued the feminist movement for decade: that women sometimes keep each other down in ‘siding’ with them me instead of unconditionally supporting their own.

As the play progresses, we – like Josie – are hungry to know why Fay killed her husband, perhaps eager to identify with her and celebrate her as a feminist heroine who would not be subjugated by male domestic abuse. Josie asks our questions: did he hit you, did he abuse you, and each time Fay defends him. The play climaxes with Fay finally telling her side of the story, and helping to complete a collection of Josie’s recovered memories. But the climax, as much of the rest of the play, is not black and white in any sense, nor does it come through the text. The confession itself is almost anticlimactic, with the emotional climax instead coming through McDade’s harrowing performance of a grieved Fay, who to this point had been on a hunger strike about the guards ending her visits with Josie. Every member of the company is palpably emotionally and psychically invested on stage in what Fay has to say. But instead of achieving some sort of relief from her confession, instead of finally having answers to our questions and achieving any sense of completion to the story, Munro casually generates more questions in us.

In the end, Josie and the audience are left to consider if Fay’s reason was ‘good enough’, and to examine what criteria we use to judge the justification of another person’s actions. Can we empathise with Fay? Do we even have any frame of reference or any kind of right to judge her? Does anyone? And so Iron ends, almost as mysteriously as it began, leaving the audience with much to chew on.

Written as an assignment while studying away at Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2003

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