Review of 'The PowerBook' by Jeanette Winterson, National Theatre, London
'The PowerBook' is a brilliantly staged adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's examination of the clash between love and social convention. The play is part of the Tranformation season which is currently playing at the National Theatre. The play revolves around the fate of two women lovers, played by Saffron Burrows and Fiona Shaw. They collide on an evening in Paris. One is married, unwilling to take the risk of leaving the security of an exhausted marriage to be with her lover. The story of their love, its power and weakness, force and uncertainty, is interrupted by a series of other stories about other lovers: Lancelot and Guinivere, two Italian Renaissance aristocrats, a 16th century Turkish princess, and an Everest climber and his wife. The recurring theme examines the way that social mores and institutions corrode and inhibit the love that arises between human beings, men and women in any combination. The play accepts no 'natural' order. In a brilliant performance Fiona Shaw, comic and tragic by turns, dominates the action as both the protagonist in the central love affair and the narrator who marshals all the other stories that compose the mosaic of the action. Those who want a conventional plot and standard character development will be disappointed. But in its place is a love poem translated onto the stage. This production achieves a marvellous combination of text that passionately affirms the power of love and a series of striking visual tableau.
The first of these historical reminiscences of love is perhaps the most engaging. We join a girl dressed as a boy who brings two tulip bulbs, hidden in a place that gives their carrier the appearance of being male, across the Mediterranean to Holland. This flower of manhood is captured by pirates and delivered to a Turkish princess to instruct her in love before she is married. She conducts us in a raucous and boisterous essay of love and sex.
But most affecting of all is the staging of the story of Lancelot and Guinivere. While the story is narrated to us by a disembodied voice, Guinivere slowly undresses and climbs onto a bed encased in a glass walled room. Her image is caught in the glass and reflected back at us, while beyond the glass wall the mailed figure of Lancelot stands with his back to his lover. The conventions that stand between them--Guinivere's flight to a convent, Lancelot's inability to overcome the enemy of social conformity--are all caught in this striking image. As the tragic story of their love unfolds a glimpse of a white horse, an image of freedom, moves across the backdrop.
There is a developing power to these fragments of history as they are interwoven with the story of the modern lovers. They show that while contemporary society potentially allows greater freedom it still takes courage to love in defiance of the accepted and traditional social expectations. Love need not be blind, but it must be brave.