A script that blends historical periods, throws in some original songs, and is set mid-podcast recording session is pretty bold for a Fringe playwriting debut. However, Anguis is all about strong women, and writer and actress Sheila Atim has created something special on both the page and stage. Her story centres around scientist Dr. Kate Williams (Janet Kumah), a podcast host with a range of important questions to ask.
Her guest is none other than Cleopatra (Paksie Vernon) – yes, the one from history books, and the Liz Taylor epic (that iconic film portrayal is cheekily referenced in the play, too). Sound engineer David (Peter Losasso) pops up in the background, but this is mainly a two-hander where these two opinionated and ambitious women can voice their views, Cleo having popped over from Aaru, the mythological fields of paradise. She even references the Egyptian death ritual of weighing her heart against a feather, but here it becomes a poetic lyric you might hear on the radio.
Cleo quickly bats back the kind of soundbites that would make a podcast go viral: “If you’re mediocre, you’re mediocre,” she says, coolly responding to Dr. Kate’s enthusiasm for more girls to study physics. Her antagonism quickly begins to grate.
There are nice doses of historical research to draw out the parts of Cleopatra’s life that we’ve often ignored in school projects on the Egyptians, such as her Greek roots, and her scientific inventions. These are contrasted with the mystery surrounding Dr. Kate’s career, which has been interrupted. Clues begin to seep through as the plot develops and the recording slips further away from the cosy interview chat and guitar performances that had been planned.
The links between the professional scientist and the fearsome ruler go beyond ambition and curiosity; they’ve both been the subject of misinformation and rumours. Cleo can sometimes laugh at hers – “It sounds over the top,” she says when told everyone thinks she died by suicide using an asp, or snake, as the means – but for Dr. Kate it’s all too fresh and upsetting, and the balance tips towards this modern-day distress. Kumah and Vernon are electric to watch throughout.
Anguis is an unusual premise, but stick with it and enjoy these two fiery women telling their stories their way.
Written by: Sheila Atim
Directed by: Lucy Jane Atkinson
Produced by: Avalon/BBC Arts
Booking Until: This show has completed its current run