EH16: Pyre looks at the lives and deaths of three women from different moments in Edinburgh’s history. We meet Agnes Samson, who was accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth century; the nineteenth-century Jessie King, the last woman executed in Edinburgh; and Violet Foster, a modern-day woman who endured an abusive relationship. Each of the named women is brought to life by one of the three female performers.
The horror in this show is not of the conventional kind; it’s the horror of the degradation and misogynistic vilification that women have suffered for centuries, and still suffer from today. Agnes is a witch, because she helps women in need of abortion. Jessie, who was clearly in a controlling relationship, is found to be solely responsible for the death of infants in her care (despite the physical impossibilities revealed in the case). Violet is abused but knows that she can’t prove spousal rape, and faces the real possibility of having to raise a child with zero financial assistance. I did feel that the power of the show was a little diluted by the fact that while Agnes and Jessie were real women, Violet is fictional – even if her situation is not.
A recurring theme of the production is unwanted children, a sensitive and politically-charged issue. The show does not shy away from these questions and makes its position clear, especially on the so-called "rape clause" in the law on child tax credits.
The connection between the three women is highlighted through the physical sections of the performance, which are scored by modern pop music that I found somewhat grating. The three women battle together and support each other, and, in one instance where the music was spot-on, sing ‘Ally Bally Bee’ – a haunting Scottish lullaby – to provide comfort and solace to one. It's a powerful, if perhaps overlong occasion.
One of the most striking moments of the production is when Agnes is being tortured and then prepared for execution; the feelings of helplessness and anger at the unfairness cut deep. However, other physical sections of the performance felt a little overwrought, and did not add to the narrative presented.
The staging is simple, with no set, and just a few few props that were well thought out. The long black skirts that the women start off wearing are used extensively, most effectively when they are bundled to represent babies. The three women also subvert the use of lipstick; instead of beautifying, they use it to paint almost warlike tribal markings on their faces.
EH16: Pyre is an interesting and thoughtful look at several women from Edinburgh’s past, and how the challenges and issues that affected them connect to women in today’s world.