Theatre reviews: Starving | La Niña Barro

Coinciding with International Women’s Day, two powerful small-scale shows focus on the strength and struggles of women, writes Joyce McMillan

Starving, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

La Niña Barro, Assembly Roxy ****

Friday was International Women’s Day; and it was a fine thing to see it celebrated, in this week’s theatre, with two powerful small-scale shows made by women in Scotland, about women, their strength, and their struggles. Imogen Stirling’s Play, Pie and Pint show Starving – premiered last week in Glasgow, and at the Traverse from tomorrow – is a gloriously vivid tribute to the life and style of the great Scottish patriot Wendy Wood, a bonny fighter whose story surely should not be forgotten, in this age of third wave feminism.

As the play begins, 21st-century woman Freya is about to turn 30 – alone in her Edinburgh flat, suffering from a range of familiar anxieties, and unable to face even a night out with friends – when she finds her evening interrupted, inexplicably enough, by a figure from 50 years ago, white-haired, eloquent, and wrapped in tartan. It is Wendy Wood, of whom Freya has never heard, but whose record of campaigns, interventions and creative activism she finds pretty impressive when she googles it on her phone; and while Freya is in 2024, Wendy is in 1972, on the fifth day of her hunger strike in the cause of Scottish home rule. What the two women have in common, though, is that inner, gnawing sense that things are not right; that craving for a larger sense of freedom that drove Wood’s independence campaigns, and is still keenly felt today by a generation of young women who find that despite all the gains of feminism, they are still shockingly constrained by the expectations of others, and by a frightening backlash of violent online misogyny.

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Freya, who works in PR, begins to help Wendy write a statement for the press, while Wendy tries to persuade Freya to get out of her flat, and start fighting for her freedom. And although the connection between Wendy’s intensely political struggle and Freya’s far more personal concerns sometimes seems tenuous, Stirling’s fascinating 50-minute dialogue is brought to life in a brilliant and passionate central performance from Isabella Jarrett as Wendy, with a pleasingly wry and complex Madeline Grieve as Freya. Eve Nicol’s production zips along at a powerful pace, and ends with a blisteringly direct question to the audience, before the lights go down.

First seen on the Edinburgh Fringe a decade ago – and promptly banned by its pub venue for its eloquent female nudity – the Edinburgh-based Fronteiras Theatre Lab’s La Niña Barro seems almost like a more abstract companion piece to Starving, the same length, utterly different in style, but full of the same deep sense of female struggle.

Based on the poetry of Spanish writer Marta Masse, and directed by Scottish-Brazilian theatre maker Flavia D’Avila, La Niña Barro (The Clay Girl) seems to reflect the life-cycle of a female figure who is infinitely malleable, like clay, and yet also full of a deeply recognisable female humanity. On a set veiled in gauzy curtains, a woman enters and plays gently on an mbira, a tiny marimba-like thumb piano; then the clay girl – a naked woman enveloped in wet clay – begins to unfold from a white chrysalis of wrapping on the floor, to learn how to stand and move, and to begin to inhabit the world.

Starving at Oran Mor PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken WanStarving at Oran Mor PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Starving at Oran Mor PIC: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The poetry, in its original Spanish, forms the soundtrack, sometimes crooning like a mother over a softly sleeping baby girl, sometimes full of a wild magic realism, sometimes hard with anger or loss. Always, though, the show is given a wonderful continuity by Alexandra Rhodes as the mbira player; and above all, by performer Elizabeth Sogorb, a quietly brilliant Willendorf Venus of a woman, emerging from the clay to remind us, in the end, how we should both remember and forget the infinite fragility of our own brief lives on earth, in order to live well.

Starving is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 12-16 March. La Niña Barro, run completed.