Illyria by Bryony Lavery is another powerful and complex play by this brilliant playwright. It’s a tale of war and love, of journalism and objectification of the other, of power and violence.
In Lavery’s play, Illyria is the war-torn country to which pregnant journalist Maria Vargas is sent. In classical antiquity, Illyria covered parts of the Balkan States, but theatre goers may recognise the name from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which was also set in Illyria. (There are also nods to Shakespeare in some of the character names and lines.)
Maria has come to Illyria to interview the wife of the General. But as she leaves the airport, her translator is shot. She ends up in the Illyrian woods in a house of horrors that has been cleaned up for the General’s mistress.
It’s a building
an old house
in a clearing
in the green green woods
once pleasing of shape
once beautiful of design
it is guarded by soldiers.
Three young men, Violent, Obseno, Fabian, enter as soldiers.
What house is this?
OBSENO: This is a Safe House, Lady.
MARIA: A what?
It’s a house just a house
a regular normal house
it’s regular normal but but but but
… but the kitchen
He’s there, the kitchen of his darkest nightmare …
stain here on the floor
no amount of scrubbing can remove
it’s the shape of a body
but the head is some way off
the ice box holds many packs
of unidentifiable joints of meat
labelled simply ‘Hostage 99’
labelled clearly ‘Hostage 99’.
And so it continues with each character telling the public version of the safe house, finishing with a ‘but but but’ before the next gives the private version filled with the horrors of its history.
Things go from bad to worse, with Maria unable to follow any of what’s being said around her. But her status as foreign journalist, mother, pregnant woman somehow keeps her safe.
I love Bryony Lavery’s writing and the way she mixes contemporary issues and wars with fables and Shakespeare. It’s an inspired piece of writing and one that should be amazing to see on stage. Hopefully one day it will be produced here …
Cast: 9F, 6M