Mad, bad or a visionary with a mission in life? These are the questions implicitly posed in this interesting one-woman play, written and performed by Alice Barry. Based on the true story of Irish aristocrat, Violet Gibson, this is the story of a reluctant debutante who shot the fascist Italian prime minister, Benito Mussolini, in 1926.
She failed to kill him however as the bullet skimmed his nose when he raised his head to salute a group of boy scouts in Rome.
The play opens with Gibson crawling out from under a heap of clothes with the sound in the background of a baying mob who tried to lynch her. “I was doing the Lord’s work,” she declares and wonders why her hour has not come. Motivated by religious fervour and her assessment of Mussolini as “the devil”, Gibson initially comes across as unhinged. But what’s at stake is a privileged woman, at odds with the passive role demanded of her gender, who wanted to do something “of real value.”
Barry portrays Gibson as a highly strung character, given to flights of fancy and declarations that suggest she thinks she is the centre of the universe. She is wracked by questions of a spiritual nature and after flirting with Christian Science and Theosophy, she converts to Catholicism even though she knows her father — whose approval she craves — will be disgusted.
Barry gives an intense performance, fleshing out a frustrated wealthy Victorian who is “going mad for the want of something useful to do.”
Gibson is not a likeable character, although in her old age, she comes to an accommodation with herself and the world.
The monologue, with its shifts in time, is broken up by a monotone voiceover of a woman describing Gibson’s clothes as she dresses herself in outfits, from an extravagant silk ball gown to a dowdy black tunic. At one point, Gibson pulls off her constricting corset.
It’s a metaphor for a woman unburdening herself of society’s suffocating expectations. But ultimately, this independent minded woman suffers for her questioning nature.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved