The Love of the Nightingale and violence against women

Fresher director Eva O’Flynn discusses dealing with themes of rape and abuse of women in theatre on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

ADC Corpus Playroom Drama Freshers' Play greek play greek tragedy homerton college the love of the nightingale violence against women

TW for sexual violence. 

I write this on 25th November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Tonight, the play I have directed, ‘The Love of the Nightingale’ by Timberlake Wertenbaker, opens. Wertenbaker rewrites from a feminist perspective the myth of the rape and silencing of Philomele by her brother-in-law, King Tereus.

The content has been hard to manage: Philomele is raped and her tongue is cut out on stage. Violence against women is both so rife and so important that to depict it on stage is complicated. I don’t want to show this content. I don’t want it to happen. When women you know have suffered so much, how can you justify recreating such horrendous acts? putting the audience through it? The only feeling I have is that I must.

The cast of The Love of the Nightingale

The content is heart-breaking, the viciousness is sickening and portraying this is, of course, difficult. The play is harrowing, intense, but it is so important. For me, however, to lessen the brutality, to soften the blow for the audience is unthinkable. Two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner. Globally, 1 in 3 women will experience violence at the hands of a male partner. Violence towards women is a painful reality. The power of Wertenbaker’s statement is upheld by the horror that the audience feels. Some scenes are painful to watch, yes, but we have to be brave, to show and discuss these matters if we stand any chance of ending violence against women. We have to not be silent.

Communication is key

The rape is compellingly dealt with: “I have to consent.” Philomele directly voices her right. Combine this basic message with the intense drama that is Greek tragedy, and the statement is magnified. The rape scene is shocking and horrible. We will be providing links to helplines for anyone who is distressed by the content. We will also be supporting The MyBodyBack Project’s ‘Notes of Love’ campaign, leaving heart-shaped notes on the chairs for the audience to write messages to survivors of rape, which will be distributed to rape crisis centres around the UK.

Cutting out Philomele’s tongue addresses more: she is silenced for daring to speak about the attack. Every minute, police in the UK receive a domestic assistance call and yet still it is estimated that only 35% of domestic violence incidents are reported to the police. A woman is, on average, assaulted more than 30 times before reporting. Silence is oppressive. The literal cutting of Philomele’s tongue enforces powerfully the way in which victims are silenced.

Having never even considered directing before, ‘The Love of the Nightingale’ was certainly a risky place to start. I only face the emotional struggle about depicting violence against women because I believe that the message is so important. She takes a classic myth and draws out of it a powerful feminist message. With a starkly minimalistic stage, a female-heavy cast and parts not assigned by gender, I aim to extend Wertenbaker’s bizarre and challenging originality to set the text even more firmly in its feminism.

Today and especially tonight, my heart is with my sisters across the globe who have suffered violence. 

The Love of the Nightingale runs from 25th Nov-28th Nov at 7:30 pm in the Homerton Auditorium.