Photos by Robbie McFadzean
The Astronaut’s Chair by Rona Munro
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
English Shows Tokyo had a chance to see the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland production of The Astronaut’s Chair on live stream (Sep. 6-11, 2021) .
Sarah Linnell as RENEE
Ben Standish as STEVE
Valerie Andrews as LARISSA/PEGGY/VALENTINA
George Knight Pond as JACK/SENATOR/KENNEDY
Katja Seascholtz as JO
Directed by Calum Moore
by Arrangement with Nick Hern Books
Location: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Dates: Streamed Sept 6-11, 2021
Based on a true story of the Space Race, this play follows two women with dreams of becoming the first female astronaut. The stage is quite simple and stylish, with a chair placed at center stage to symbolize the competition – there is only one astronaut’s chair, and two accomplished female pilots vying for the position. All actors orbit around the chair throughout the play, maintaining their focus even when they are not actively participating in the scene.
Sarah Linnell, who works in Japan under the name ‘Sarah Macdonald’, plays the lead role of Renee Coburg – a veteran pilot and pioneer for female aviators. She is not only a skilled pilot, but a savvy businesswoman with a keen understanding of politics and power. She knows how to use her femininity in the “boy’s club” of aviation. Sarah’s Renee is capable, driven, and charismatic, with an almost gravitational pull of her own. She is a woman who – though faulted – you can’t help but admire. But despite her talent and force of will, even Renee can’t escape time; Her mental and physical health deteriorate as she ages and Sarah does a beautiful job shifting back and forth in time, showing us a Renee who is fighting to remain in the spotlight as the world moves on around her.
Steve, played by Ben Standish, shows real chemistry with Renee. Though both have their own families, they are inevitably drawn together, caught in each other’s orbit for better or worse. Sparks fly as their relationship evolves of the course of the play, which spans many years. And while they often find themselves in tense conflict, we see that there is true kinship and understanding that sustains them through their lives.
Jo, played by Katja Seascholtz, is a young, up-and-coming pilot who poses a real threat to Renee’s career. She gradually changes from a clumsy young lady to a very ambitious woman more than capable of fighting for her chance at becoming the first female astronaut. Jo must learn the whole song and dance (sometimes literally!) required by the media in order to get ahead.
It is ironic that the women’s rivalry is so driven by men, who have control over the astronaut program. While it’s true that women have more agency now than they did in the 1950s-60s in which The Astronaut’s Chair is set, I couldn’t help but think of the glass ceiling we face to this day. Often forced to choose between career and family, so many women are prevented from pursuing their dreams and fulfilling their true potential. This play offers an at times triumphant, at times sobering look at human progress, reminding us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.