The mystery of Jack the Ripper is one that has continued to baffle historians, journalists, and amateur Ripperologists to this day. Who was he? Why did he do it?
It is no secret that many are drawn by the story of the Ripper.
An equally compelling story however, one that is too often overlooked but one of profound significance, is the story of his victims. Unfairly yet inexplicably synonymous with stereotypical labels, we have a tendency to view these women simply as ‘prostitutes’, oblivious to the tragic circumstances that drove them to sell their bodies in exchange for financial compensation, just so they could afford food or lodgings for the night.
The Blue Orange Theatre presents ‘Jack the Ripper: The Victims’, a production that casts off labels and depicts these women for what they are – human. Their biographical narratives are interwoven as an all-female cast explore the flaws, failings and shortcomings, but also the endurance, determination, and grit of these women who repeatedly did what they had to do to survive.
As the audience wait for the production to begin, the noises of Whitehall fill the auditorium – the horse and carriages being pulled along cobbled streets and the clamour of voices – until a bell tolling heralds the death of Polly Ann Nichols, the first of the five canonical victims of Jack the Ripper.
The women begin describing her death, until suddenly, they stop, and question why they are doing this. They believe that ‘that’s what they (the public) want to hear about’.
They turn to each other and ask,’ what’s stopping us telling the story of our lives?’. What indeed? The women proceed to correct this, and it is their stories that are at the forefront of this production.
All onstage throughout the production, the women tell their stories, overlapping each other in an engaging, fast-paced approach. They act as secondary supporting characters for each other, switching accents and donning additional props and pieces of clothing to enable us to easily distinguish between them.
The cast share a touching, empowering chemistry. Though at times they goad, tease, insult and laugh at each other, they stand together in a heartwarming display of female solidarity, guiding, supporting, comforting each other, linked by the unparalleled and callous cruelty that befell them, but unitedly determined to be remembered for something more.
Life dealt these women harsh blows, and they tell us of the abuse, domestic violence and illnesses they suffered. Victims to pitiless poverty, the sold the only thing they had – their bodies. Often, what little money they earned was spent on drink. Looked down upon by an unforgiving society, seen as inferior and immoral, the women came to realise that ‘nobody cares what becomes of us’. They were seen only as ‘whores’, objectified as playthings purposed only for the pleasures of men, designed to be used and abused, treated as less than human.
With few necessary references to Jack, there is no physical manifestation of the character, no glory or dignity afforded to him. He is not the focus of this story.
Historically accurate, the production dispels certain myths, using dates, times and locations to give the stories it depicts a grounding in fact. This lends to the production a striking naturalness, a startling sincerity and a comprehensive clarity, refusing to shy away from even the most violent of details as autopsy reports are read out and murderous actions are gesticulated, whilst consistently maintaining a sensitivity and respect.
This production de-objectifies these women, fleshing them out, sharing with us the dimensions and complexities that make them human, and urges that they be remembered as such.
When the women are killed, they each lay down an object, red in colour, at the location of their death. Coupled with a frequent red lighting, there is an atmosphere of foreboding, of danger, and of bloodshed that haunts the production. With references to dock fires and ‘Dante’s Inferno’, we cannot escape the hellish nature of this part of our shared history.
When the womens’ life force is drained, each leaves something behind, a token of remembrance, in order that some part of them still burns, their inextinguishable stories echoing down the ages, refusing to be forgotten.
These five strong women, who did what they had to do to survive, survive now, in memory and in history. A vivid, visceral, veracious immortalising of their legacy, ‘Jack the Ripper: The Victims’ is a fitting token of remembrance, ensuring that the stories of these women are still blazing.