[Review:] A NEW DAWN, Union Theatre, London.
Making use of very current sociopolitical themes, A New Dawn is a very entertaining play that follows the story of fictional politician Emma, her love life, political fame and scandal. It is definitely, as promoted, a play that toys with trust, creating not only distrust between the three characters, Emma (Sue Appleby), Lucy (Sarah Leigh) and Jon (Mark Donald), but between these characters and the audience itself.
The writing is, on the whole, very good. It is insidious in its revelations, providing us with loops and twists but also with multifaceted or conniving characters who seem innocent or helpful but, in fact, hide behind deceitful secrets. In this way, the text is very intriguing and manifold. It also provides us with a sufficient personal and collective history of the characters, one which unravels and becomes progressively complex.
However, I would note that the way the characters both relate to one another and detail this relationship to the audience is quite repetitious. It usually involves one character mentioning in passing a memory, deliberately evoking one or using one as the material of a snide remark or verbal attack; this memory of this moment, period or event is then recalled by the other character; then, it is detailed, rather conspicuously and meticulously to the audience. This manner of expression occurs regularly throughout the text, eliminating any naturalism. In natural speech, we do not tend to remember things together with others in such detail; when we share histories, however large or small, with other people, we tend to relate these memories to one another by referring only to one or two aspects of the tale, and our counterpart quickly catches on, and the moment is brief, flitting. If each character has to explain the memory in full for the other characters to understand, this does the exact opposite of demonstrating togetherness and shared pasts, for if they were so close (or so vocally disparate), they would both retain these memories clearly.
This is a very common mistake in writing, particularly for theatre and film, and it should be noted that connotations, memories and remarks can, indeed, be esoteric and outside of an audience’s comprehension — as long as this is not overdone, of course. Writer Oliver Kendall should not be scared to write language more naturalistically or language which sometimes makes for inside jokes and closed dialogue, for example, that is of limited understanding to the audience but which provides this wanted sense of shared history.
There is quite a good degree of believability in terms of the specificity of specialist vocabulary required for a play involving media and press, yet I would note that the fictionality of Emma’s political party was most definitely detectable. I think a lot more effort could have gone into making Emma’s party, objectives and overall manifesto much more detailed, elaborate and hence convincing.
Finally, though I really do love the conclusion of the play and the final, reconciliatory moment we witness between Emma and Lucy — a most powerful and complex moment — I feel that the addition of an affair between Lucy and Jon was just that tad too much. This addition really limits the world of the play to these three characters where it really ought to be expanded and made more dimensional in many aspects.
Writing aside, I shall move on to characterisation. I do not feel the acting was particularly magnificent in this performance, though this is partially due to the aforementioned lack of naturalism in the dramatic text itself. I find myself particularly disappointed with Leigh’s characterisation, who clearly struggles to portray sarcasm or acerbity convincingly. Her performance became rather one-note — that is until the end of the performance when Lucy moves away from bitterness and frustration and towards sorrow and dejection. These emotions Leigh captured very well. Otherwise, I would also have liked to see more emotional range from Appleby and a more hard-hitting shift in persona from Donald when it is revealed that his character is behind Emma's scandal. Donald was rather repetitive in his approach to his character in this respect.
Overall, all actors seemed to lack a certain vigour in their performance, repeating gestures and movements and retaining very similar proximities with one another. This generated an unwanted sense of stagnancy. A more dynamic use of space would have allowed for a much livelier and animated piece of theatre. A similar, bigger problem for all actors, again concerning movement, is that they each have a tendency in this play to face forwards, rarely showing their backs to the audience. Seeming very deliberate, I would urge that their movements be less strict and more fluid in this way. Again, as it stands, this takes away from any realism — not to mention this is a very bland and crude performance style. I do understand, however, that these are most likely issues projecting from directorial decisions (play directed by Layla Madanat).
The ending, as mentioned above, saw a vast improvement from Appleby and Leigh, from the moment Lucy begins to trust, even empathise with Emma. I believe this is both down to a change in mood and rhythm but also a change in emotion; both actresses are clearly more gifted in expressing profound grief and complexity of mind. I must stress here that this cast is not terrible but simply watchable; more depth in both the writing of their characters and their own characterisations could really refine this play.
A few notes on tech. Sound (designed by Jason Williams) constituted the majority of tech in this performance, composed of political interviews, reports and speeches. This definitely generated a sense of the bustle and pandemonium surrounding Emma, yet I would say that it was slightly incongruous stylistically with the performance, particularly with the pulsing lights, being that lighting (designed by Ed Lees) remained otherwise consistent throughout. I would also note that when Emma and Lucy listen to the radio, it is, yet again, unrealistic for them to tune in at the very beginning of the report. It was a good decision to not change lighting states throughout the performance, however, and sound was well designed and recorded.
Finally, set (designed by Madanat and Rebecca Kendall). This was a very well designed set, simplistic yet detailed enough to represent location and space. The colour scheme for Lucy’s living room was particularly bold and eye-catching, and the overall design was modern…yet, I’m not so sure if this is befitting of Lucy’s character. It is slightly too polished for her, I would say, slightly too neat and minimal. Small things like the letter, for example: would this really be propped up so finely in plain sight? Or would it be on top of the bookshelf, perhaps on one of the books, in fact, or on top of the coffee table, even? It seemed too presumptuous to place it so conspicuously as it was.
Again, I would just be aware of how the space the set creates is used as well. The area downstage where the large white rug sits is a lovely, broad and stretched space that I feel more action could be enacted in. Too much of the action takes place further upstage, and moving it downwards would create more of a sense of urgency and business.
Overall, this is a good and enjoyable performance. Its structure is promising and coherent; I would just be aware of finer, more pedantic elements, viz. naturalistic speech and action, use of space, realism of motives and events…