Review of the thoughtful drama worth wrapping your head around. AIRSWIMMING by Charlotte Jones on Friday, 24 February 2023, in Theater Drachengasse.
By Wolfgang Geissler
When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?
Here’s what she said to me
Qué será, será
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours to see
Qué será, será
What will be, will be…
There was a time not long ago when showing a little independence of mind in England could land you in considerable trouble. Especially if you were born female, history shows.
In contemporary society, the available roles for women, or the roles women were permitted to play, were constrictingly narrow. They included wife and mother and very little else. In fact, for most of the 20th century, being different was often remarkably dangerous.
In that context, it may be worrying to realise that in 2023 during the current Scottish National Party leadership contest and future First Minister, one participating hopeful objected to equal marriage, transgender rights and sex outside marriage because having children outside marriage is “wrong”.
Let’s go “Airswimming” instead! It’s based on the true story of two women (Miss Kitson and Miss Baker), who have been incarcerated in a hospital for the ‘criminally insane’ for not conforming to society’s rules.
“Airswimming”, written in 1997, is the inaugural work of British playwright Charlotte Jones, best known for her 2002 “Humble Boy,” successfully produced in London and New York. In its U.S. premiere, this early effort is pocket-sized and less ambitious than “Humble Boy,” having just two characters, a single set, and some basic props. But shout it from the rooftops: “Airswimming” is a small but sparkling gem that gleams with heartfelt anger, endearing comedy, and underlying sadness. It is an intimate play demanding an intimate setting, which it has in the Theater Drachengasse. It also requires much of its two protagonists, blessed here with wonderfully contrasting performances from Jacqueline Braun and Joanna Godwin-Seidl.
“I’ve been here since 1922. Yes, stationed here July 4th – American Independence Day – funny that. The irony is not lost on me, believe you me. I shall be your superior officer for a while, but don’t worry, I’m not one to pull rank. We do this polishing duty for one hour each day. The rest of the time we shuffle and look crazed. They prefer it that way.”
The setting is a hospital for the “criminally insane” in 1920s England. Dora (Ms Braun) has been incarcerated for wishing to dress and live like a man (and smoking the occasional cigar! Vienna’s celebrated Frau Sacher got away with it!)). She is joined by Persephone (Ms Godwin-Seidl), whose family has moved her there because she bore an illegitimate child. Dora is the down-to-earth realist, while Persephone is an upper-class would-be debutante.
“Airswimming,” tells how these two women share a room and a life together, each supporting the other when needed. At first, the stalwart Dora must encourage the vulnerable Persephone, who is under the impression that she is only there to convalesce. However, as the years go on, Dora begins to despair, and Persephone must comfort her. To survive their endless incarceration, Dora and Persephone adopt alter egos, Dorph and Porph, who regularly enact fantasies. Porph takes on the personification of Doris Day, while Dorph celebrates triumphant historical women, often in the guise of a man.
Within the first two minutes, Dora establishes the world into which Persephone has been thrust, although the newcomer refuses to accept it.
“Here we need strong elbows,” Dora tells her. “We have no need of a nicely turned ankle, an elegant wrist, a swan-like neck. No, here you need damn good elbows.”
Persephone fantasises about being rescued by Reggie, the married, older man who fathered her child, and becomes increasingly agitated as she realises that her fantasy will never come true. It’s not until Persephone relinquishes her grasp on her former world that she is able to survive.
She then swans around in a Doris Day wig, singing the actress’ songs and lauding her all-American, apple pie-perfect persona; she uses Doris Day’s own mask of cheery wholesomeness to get her through the darkest times in her life.
Porph: I have never been one for artifice. It is a characteristic I despise. I am always exactly what I am. I always show exactly how I feel.
Dorph: What are you talking about?
Porph: Doris said that.
Dorph: I might have known
The excellently acted (Braun, Godwin-Seidl) and directed (Andy Hallwaxx) play lets us swirl around, dream, and go “airswimming” with Dorph and Porph while feeling the depths of Dora and Persephone’s shared despair when they inevitably confront the bleakness of their lives. But the beauty, the reason why the airswimming, the dancing, and the playing work to draw us in without even touching the realm of cheesiness, is because of the profound love that Dora and Persephone develop for each other. Ultimately, this production of “Airswimming” is not actually about the plights of the wrongfully imprisoned women of England and Ireland and all the other countries where that still happens. It’s about two women slowly realising that they will never be rescued, so they rescue each other.
Jones uses shifts in time, backwards and forward, to cover the long period of the women’s imprisonment (they are not released until 1972, as the chalk mark on the wall tells us. The passage of time, starting with 1922, when Dora first was incarcerated, and 1924, the year Persephone joined her, was meticulously recorded). She does not shy away from showing moments of madness, but there is always the unspoken thought that the cruel, uncaring system is as much to blame as the women themselves. Through all these years, Jones threads a surprising web of comedy. Porph’s obsession with Day and Dorph’s stoic tolerance of it is amusing to watch. The scene that gives the play its title is one of such originality, charm, and great sadness. The final question that crossed my mind: Did Porph ever get her cat she fevered for all the 58 years in the asylum?
Strong and stirring performances by Jaqueline Braun and “our” Joanna Godwin-Seidl. Impressive indeed.
The members of the Austro-British Society subsequently retired to the spacious Rehearsal room on the first floor, where the Café Ministerium had already prepared delicious canapés and sparkling wine. There we were joined by Ms Braun and Ms Godwin-Seidl.
It was also a pleasant surprise to meet Julia Schafranek again, Director of Vienna’s English Theatre, whom I hadn’t seen for maybe eight years. It was a perfect night.
*13 Additional “official photos” provided by Aleksandra Chornobab, Photographer.