Sans Merci

At times difficult to watch, Sans Merci (by Johnna Adams) is a beautifully written and sensitive portrayal of both the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and the reality of women in places of conflict.  Following on from the success of Orphans, Manchester theatre company Play With Fire deliver yet another production that makes a huge impact with subject matter rarely covered in Manchester theatre.

Kelly (Hannah Ellis Ryan) is a political activist and survivor of rape and attempted murder by South American soldiers.  She is visited by Elizabeth (Judy Holt), whose daughter Tracy (Chloe Proctor) died in the incident.  Elizabeth struggles to reconcile the two apparently opposite sides to Tracy; the studious daughter she knew and loved, and the free willed woman who travelled to Columbia because she loved Kelly.  Threading through the play is the Keats ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is picked at in the same way as John Donne was in Wit.  It’s a beautifully layered, intelligent script, powerfully performed by the talented cast of three women on a set designed to be uncomfortably intimate.

At the heart of the play is the question of who can the mother, Elizabeth, blame.  Should she blame herself, who had a powerful influence on her daughter’s life, instilling her own love for Keats, and an unrealistically romantic view of the world?  Is it Kelly, who puts her own desires and political principles ahead of Tracy’s personal safety?  Or is she blaming Tracy herself, lest we forget that in many conflicts (Africa and Eastern Europe for example) the victim is held responsible, and a realistic premise based on her right wing views.  And of course the play is marked by the absence of the men who are ultimately responsible.

Sans Merci highlights the fact that in our world scarred by distant wars, women in areas of conflict are the hidden sufferers, and the media tends to take a superficial view.  As the Director (Daniel Bradford) notes, ‘we need to rehumanise these stories.  To bring faces and feelings back to these names on a page.’  It’s a powerful story about the effects of a single incident on three women, as a proxy for the wider issues, and it’s a stunning production.

This post is dedicated to my mother, a victim of conflict.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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