Juno (Maia Watkins) is concerned about her best friend, Venus / V (Jessica Murrain). She is more withdrawn since becoming the talk of the town when a private video went viral. V finds solace at a local museum. She is intrigued by the exhibition on Saartje Baartman (Natasha Magigi) – aka the Hottentot Venus. Baartman was tricked by heartless opportunists into leaving her native South Africa, owing to her prodigious rear. She was notoriously paraded around 18th Century Europe for the entertainment of affluent audiences. V senses her almost-namesake’s presence. She engages in alternately tense and therapeutic conversations with what is either a spectre or a figment of her troubled imagination.
V relates to Saartje’s humiliation and violation. There is more to her story than a lewd video that ended up on the net without her consent. It involves violent treatment at the hands of her best friend’s boyfriend. Yet Juno refuses to accept V’s side of events.
Effervescent up-and-coming playwright Naomi Cortes’ surreal historical drama ‘Not Bound Within’ equally informs and discomforts. The contempt and indignity of Saartje’s short life rings a solemn bell; in particular her commodification, and inferences about her supposedly insatiable sexual appetite. There is (admittedly more subtle) resonance with modern mainstream depictions of women of African descent. Baartman’s legacy is somewhat perverse, although obviously not of her own making. There are theories that she was the inspiration behind the Victorian bustle design. Far more shockingly gruesome, some of her remains (including her genitalia) were on public display until the 1970s. She only received a proper burial in 2002, at the behest of then South African president Nelson Mandela.
The socio-cultural distortions of patriarchy hang heavy over ‘Not Bound Within’. Whether it be the objectification of the female form or Juno choosing to take her lover’s word over her best friend.
The trio of actors each shine in their distinctive ways; Watkins for her naturalism, Magigi for her versatility and élan and Murrain for persuasively balancing V’s rulebook pedantry with fragility.
Elements of Cortes’ otherworldly script are distracting and incoherent. With some refining, the salient themes can have the focus they deserve. As the writer asserts in a post-show Q&A, there’s a ‘fire’ for such narratives. The sad familiarity of Baartman’s tale lingers. Her memory will be better honoured when the sorry lessons of the past stop being repeated, even in milder form.
Written by Naomi Cortes
Directed by Karen Tomlin
Producer: Niger Asije
Natasha Magigi – Saartje Baartman
Jessica Murrain – Venus