Two Ladies is the latest play by Auckland Theatre Company. It’s a fairly simple story in some ways – the first ladies of France and America are hustled into a waiting room after surviving an angry mob protest. There is no love lost between them and they clearly don’t trust one another. Separated from their husbands, and attended to by insincere lackeys, all they can do is talk.
The US First Lady, Sophia (Anna Jullienne), has an ulterior motive for being there. Her English born but French counterpart Hélène (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) is dealing with a personal issue that is causing her great stress. As they discover more about each other, they realise they both share a deep frustration with their personal situations and a common hatred of the oppressive nature of political power.
When Two Ladies premiered in London it had mixed reviews. It was described as farcical by some reviewers but did receive praise for its cast.
Certainly there are a couple of elements to the story that are quite bizarre and seemingly far fetched, but if you look at what has happened in America since 2019, those ‘crazy’ plot points don’t seem that ridiculous.
Besides, this play is not biographical, it is a parody and searing critique of politics that rips to shreds the accepted nonsense and convention that ‘first ladies’ somehow lend respectability to an elected leader. Two Ladies is deeply funny and has some sharp one-liners that shatter any illusions that the elites of this world are better or more moral than the rest of us. Politics is about deflecting the truth in order to gain power and this is beautifully explored in the play.
But it is not just about politics. It is also about misogyny and violence.
In one scene, Ward-Lealand and Jullienne are alone on stage together. Jullienne delivers a long monologue about a horrific incident from Sophia’s past. Ward-Lealand looks on, occasionally uttering small questions or simple reactions while Jullienne speaks. There is no music, no sound or other action to distract the audience. The theatre is deathly quiet. The effect is mesmerising.
Jullienne’s performance was perfectly nuanced, thought-provoking, and heartbreakingly intimate. The character she had played up until then – stoic and aloof – vanished, replaced by someone deeply scarred, angry and vengeful.
Moments later, the mask was up again, but the character of Sophia was forever changed. That scene, elevated this play from mere political satire to a scorching indictment of how men treat women.
Although the main characters are clearly based on archetypal versions of Melania Trump and Brigitte Macron, they are in fact fiction. Their backstories have many similarities, but these are characters in their own right and they are not two-dimensional stereotypes. The real women would probably provide too much baggage and distract from the message of this play, but by identifying with them, there is a familiarity which enables us to clearly understand the message.
Playwright Nancy Harris says the story came to her after seeing Macron and Trump together at a world summit and it made her wonder what would it be like to be so close to power but having none themselves.
The play answers that question very well.
9th -27th February 2021
Auckland Theatre Company
ASB Waterfront Theatre