Actor Sheila Atim (famed for her turn in The Girl from the North Country) debuts her first scripted play, Anguis, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Tackling themes such as misrepresentation and feminist achievement, Atim’s play draws parallels from Cleopatra and a modern day virologist in this heated, albeit incohesive piece.
Dr Kate Williams (Janet Kumah) is hosting a science podcast in which she interviews Cleopatra (Paksie Vernon), who visits and performs original music from the afterlife. Interlaced between musical performances, Williams and Cleopatra discuss the latter’s scientific achievements (with crocodile dung and donkey’s milk), whilst addressing misconceptions about Cleopatra’s reign and legacy. Parallels begin to occur as Williams’ professional life and own controversies begin to take an invasive role in the heated interview.
Anguis’ premise is undoubtedly a unique one – the mere idea of Cleopatra visiting from the afterlife to perform and guest on a podcast is a bizarre stumbling block – let alone the fact that she would be lauded for her scientific achievements. Yet Atim’s narrative begins to find its groove as it progresses and unveiling an intriguing way to explore its themes of misconceptions and feminism.
The frosty exchanges between Williams and Cleopatra – heightened by Williams’ errors about Cleopatra’s alleged death due to an asp which emerge throughout the interview – build an impressive dramatic tension between the characters. Both powerful women in their fields – Cleopatra in political and military leadership, Williams in her field of virology there is an intriguing feminist undercurrent coursing throughout Anguis. Yet both these women face defeat – Cleopatra’s at the Battle of Actium and Williams’ throughout an intriguing medical tribunal angle which is drip-fed throughout – with their respective downfalls acting as a shared emerging bond between both women.
Williams’ battles with misconceptions through false accusations in her tribunal are slowly released throughout the narrative in a simmering sense of hysteria and unease. Continual phone calls, unsettling sound design and creative use of lighting build a foreboding tension and sense of intrigue towards our protagonist’s backstory.
Anguis shines through its heartfelt musical performances from Vernon, and bold central turns from Vernon and Kumah. There are intriguing parallels showcased in the stories of Cleopatra and the virologist – yet these can feel somewhat forced through a narrative that lacks cohesion and tries to do too much with such an outlandish concept.