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by on 22 April 2018

An Insight into an Engaging Psyche


by Stéphane Ghislain Roussel

Ja? Theatre Company at The Cockpit Theatre, 16th April 2018, Theatre in the Pound Continues until Monday 17th Dec 2018

Review by Poppy Rose Jervis

Ja? Theatre Company’s Sylvia is a work in progress inspired by Monocle, A Portrait of S. von Harden, a one act monologue written and devised by Stéphane Ghislain Roussel, after the Otto Dix’s famous 1926 painting, Portrait of the Journalist, Sylvia von Harden. It forms part of Theatre in the Pound, a year-long series of short scratch-writing plays.

Sylvia is the story of Sylvia von Harden told as she sits for the portrait. The pronouns she and her are used throughout this review in a reflection of it being ‘she’ who sits for the portrait.


‘The production is a meta-theatrical exploration of womanhood, contemporary politics and art’ and a piece that provokes thought and some explanation. With director Anne Mulleners, dramaturge Melissa Syversen and producer Christina Bulford, the Ja? Theatre Company translated the play from French and German with the aim of releasing Sylvia from Berlin to a figure that ‘transcends place … and fits in any urban space’. This is effectively accomplished as we are transported with, and to, Sylvia as the piece unfolds and the employed devices, directing and acting unite.

On one hand it might seem that to get the most from this performance you would need a little background knowledge but this is not so. It’s true that it helps to have some clarity but the performance is so delightful that, in this case, it does not make any difference.

Performer Joseph Morgan Schofield plays the Sylvia in front of us, sitting for her portrait talking to Otto (and us). Performing in a video is Caroline Tek, who appears at significant moments on a large screen behind the physical Sylvia. The aim of creating a ‘dialogue between the original Sylvia and a more contemporary, cosmopolitan Sylvia’ is effectively realised through this conceit.

Where it might be useful to be familiar with the portrait is in recognising the skill and attention to detail of Costume Designer, Alana Coventry in her replication of the red and black chequered dress of the painting’s Sylvia. Although not immediately spottable, the unity of their connection as it is mirrored in the footage in the jump-suit worn by Caroline Tek, the contemporary Sylvia. Sylvia’s dress is high necked and tubed, emphasising her head. It is narrow at the sleeve ends drawing attention to her hands.

‘This painting symbolises the rise of the feminist ideal of the ‘new woman’ as personified by Sylvia … [women] could acquire “masculine qualities” …. smoking, drinking, male clothing, higher education and the economic freedom to prioritise career over traditional family life …..’ – something of a contradiction as, far from looking like a woman in male clothing, Sylvia appears in the painting as a man in a dress, having male facial characteristics and large masculine hands. Yet it feels that, in spite of ridding herself of female characteristics, she is still treated by the world, or certainly by the people in her world, as a woman.

As Sylvia is slightly provocative, I too shall be and ask (as the lighting does show this up!) whether Sylvia would shave her legs? At first I thought ‘yes’, thinking in terms of male to female transgender, and then ‘no’ as Sylvia would see this as a masculine quality. It would be interesting to know if this was discussed by the Ja? Theatre Company, or maybe it was something that only Joseph Morgan Schofield could decide?

This raises the question of how Sylvia should be played and which Sylvia we would get to see. Should she be a woman in an imitation after the portrait? Should Sylivia have the power of man but the beauty of a woman? Should psychological androgyny be portrayed? or should Sylvia be transgender or a man in drag? Schofield, using them and they pronouns, plays Sylvia as person of elegance who does not identify as having a fixed gender. It is a beautiful projection of indeterminate male and female.

The play accomplishes its goal overpassing time and space with subtly clever devices. With an elemental screen we have the almost static non-binary Sylvia but with predominant voice, face and hands, in tandem with the more care-free persona moving with the ease of the unrestricted and less haunted.

Strengthening the traverse, the piece becomes bilingual as we hear contemporary Sylvia in German. Not quite so positive was the initial screening of location: a noisy distraction, not expected and better left out. It requires concentration and a lifting of the eyes and mind from Sylvia, whereas thereafter the device is integral and enhancing.

As the play opens we are immediately affected by a number of things. We hear the sound of seagulls, always slightly haunting, but are then left in a wondering silence. We see Sylvia and are a little unsure of her. We still cannot hear anything. From this early moment, the audience is transfixed. We watch her shoulders move. We watch her touch a cuff. We watch her re-arrange a sleeve. We still don’t hear her speak and are intrigued. She has a cigarette and we watch her inhale. We watch her exhale. We hear her breath. We hear her swallow but we still don’t hear her speak. This is an instance of superb directing and acting.

When Sylvia does speak, ‘I have to tell you a story’, we are not sure if she is talking to us, but nevertheless an instant relationship with the audience is formed. Again, we watch her inhale. We watch her exhale. As she talks, she remembers and as she remembers she holds her own body. She is talking to Otto but she is talking to us. She is fabulously engaging. Schofield draws us in by leaning forward and talking in a conspiratorial but companionable manner, softly at times. Managing to convey a vulnerability whilst appearing slightly teasing and provocative with a frisson of camp and wickedness, Schofield creates a unique bond with her audience. Conversely, by drawing away from us, we are made aware of a nonchalance. Our insight into her psyche is led by the personal reminiscence and story-telling script of Roussel which Schofield delivers vocally and in terms of characterisation and expression consistently with excellent pacing and timing, defining pauses with hand movements, mannerisms and mouth sound.

This is the first time the play has been performed in England in English, but it will not be the last. This is one to follow.

Poppy Rose Jervis
April 2018

Photography courtesy of Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris






From → Drama, Fringe, Reviews

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