Ursula - Queen of the Jungle, The Wightman Theatre, Shrewsbury - review
Never mind six degrees of separation – I bet Chris Eldon Lee can link any good story with his beloved Shropshire in three.
His new play Ursula – Queen of the Jungle opens intriguingly with Mark Tully in India instructing the audience in Shrewsbury’s Wightman Theatre to switch off our phones. Tully is the former BBC Delhi correspondent and the said Queen’s nephew.
Joanna Purslow, the solo actor who plays Ursula and a dozen other characters of mixed age, gender, nationality and ethnicity, takes to the stage as the most dramatic of them all – Guidinliu, the self-proclaimed rebel Naga Goddess.
And then we’re at the Bear Steps, Shrewsbury, in 1981, with original footage of a Naga wedding dance at a presentation by the elderly Ursula Graham Bower, organised by her friend Hilda Murrell.
“You can only imprison my shadow,” Guidinliu says as she is captured by the British. When young amateur anthropologist Ursula arrives in 1937 with her picnic basket full of healing medicines in the hills of Nagaland – between Assam and Burma – many believe she is their goddess returned in a different form.
Hers is an incredible story and I have to fight the urge to fill this review with a summary of astonishing incidents from it. Rather, I urge you to see the play yourself, for writer and director Eldon Lee has packaged them perfectly. He has crafted from his thorough research a theatrical gem that sparkles with originality, humour, and a passion for its subject which becomes deeply affecting .
“Your average village Naga is the nicest chap you could ever hope to meet,” Ursula insists. His passion for head hunting is the only problem, and bleached skulls stand on poles above her vegetable patch. But while we develop more understanding and sympathy for Naga culture, largely through the voice of Ursula’s interpreter and bodyguard Namkia, the social anthropology of British late colonial adventurers is a central subject.
Purslow clearly relishes the enormous challenge of delivering a continuous ninety-minute entertainment on her own. There’s a lovely fluidity to her movements, complemented by striking back projections, as she dips into her travel trunk to produce the simple props that support her convincing transformations into an American newsman, a veteran British Officer leading intelligence operations against the Japanese, the Commander in Chief of the Naga National Army, and many more.
She is never more persuasive than as Ursula herself. After a delightful courtship scene which she plays opposite a giant butterfly net, she tells us she’s never been a great fan of kissing, but she finds she rather likes it. She perfectly captures the naive self-confidence, charming eccentricity, and determination to go for it of a remarkable woman.
After bringing Nagaland to Shropshire, Eldon Lee will be taking it “representing Shropshire” to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and then in December on tour to Ursula’s Naga villages.
Ursula - Queen of the Jungle runs at the Wightman Theatre until Saturday, May 6
By John Hargreaves