When we picture a story in which time is a loop of conflicting perspectives, we might imagine a sci-fi movie. Abi Morgan’s “Splendour,” however, adapts this structure to an entirely different genre.
Morgan, known for penning “The Iron Lady” (2011), premiered “Splendour” in Edinburgh 17 years ago. Now making its Bay Area premiere at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley, “Splendour” employs unconventional storytelling techniques to paint a portrait of four women, depicting the individual roles they play in the midst of their war-torn society.
The play begins at a moment of heightened tension: the sound of a vase shattering to the ground as the lights turn on to reveal the four women in the middle of a conversation. Given minimal initial context, the roles and backgrounds of each of these women are uncovered layer by layer as the play unfolds.
A few scenes later, photojournalist Kathryn (Denmo Ibrahim) and her translator Gilma (Sam Jackson) visit the opulent house of Micheleine (Lorri Holt) to take a portrait of Micheleine’s husband, a clearly important yet unnamed figure. As the outside world grows increasingly chaotic, Micheleine’s longtime friend Genevieve (Mia Tagano) joins them to take refuge.
The audience hears different versions of this same encounter told from each of the women’s perspectives. The play frequently jumps around in time, showing conflicting versions of events — or skipping over others entirely — only to return later to clarify.
“Splendour” maintains a convoluted narrative, yet its story is clear enough to hold the audience’s interest. As the play rewinds and starts the same scene over and over, the audience eventually realizes that it can’t trust any one narrator exclusively — each of the women tells the story as she perceives it — and that there are always deeper motives behind every action.
The narrative structure is intriguing, but it’s the characters’ complex backgrounds — the unconventional ways in which each woman becomes tied to the war — that keep us engaged throughout. Under the initial premise, the women are brought together by a man we expect to overshadow them. But in the process of waiting for this man, we dive into the untold stories of his wife, a poverty-stricken girl caught in the middle, a seemingly agreeable widow and a dedicated photojournalist. They’re the women pushed to the sidelines by figures such as the one they are waiting for, but here they are put in the spotlight.
Of particular note is Holt’s performance as the play’s leading lady Micheleine. Holt starts out portraying a superficial housewife, but retains a shroud of mystery and awe around her as we constantly question Micheleine’s steadfast devotion to her husband and ask ourselves if we truly believe in what she’s saying. With the tense composure Holt displays, as if she’s about to crack at any instant, she at times seems like a dispassionate manipulator and at other times, merely a victim of circumstance.
In the small space of Aurora Theatre, the staging complements the show excellently. There’s only one set — Micheleine’s living room — but the story transforms this space, taking us to various places as we explore further into the backgrounds of the individual characters. The audience is left to figure out which scenes happen where, inspiring a sort of impressionistic quality in the play.
“Splendour” excels in its unreliable presentation, keeping the audience engaged and constantly thinking. Although at its core, we are seeing the same scene over and over up until the end, it never feels boring. In fact, the rapid-fire dialogue makes one think that even glancing away from the stage for a brief moment could cause one to miss a crucial unraveling of a lie or the true feeling behind a sentence — all of which work together to deliver a powerful representation of clashing values in a collapsing society.