[Review:] BURIED; GRACELAND; NUCLEAR WAR, Old Red Lion Theatre, London.
The three performances considered in this review, Nuclear War, Buried, and Graceland, are currently performing alongside one another as part of a so-called triptych at the Old Red Lion theatre. I will start with a summary of the night overall and then proceed to consider each play separately.
In this review:
I find it difficult to comprehend why these plays were presented together, for there is very little to relate them to one another besides the very loose and inadvertent theme of suffering or the more blatant and explicit yet very superficial theme of sex [very distinctly the by-products of average male writing]. Clearly, the concept of a triptych was misunderstood in this way. The plays present such starkly different material, with great disparities in content, performance style and level of intrigue or imaginativeness, that it is somewhat difficult not only to consider them all as interrelated pieces of theatre but to evaluate the enjoyability and strength of the “triptych” overall.
The very first image we are presented with is highly erroneous. In entering the house, we enter the set for the first play, Buried (all sets designed by Anna Kezia Williams). All four of the actors that will perform are scattered around the stage, yet these actors, barring James Demaine, of course, have no place in this context; their characters have absolutely nothing to do with this first play, so why are they here? This is a cheap, ineffective and struggling way to unite the three plays, and this most certainly needs to be changed. Using an apparent school janitor to clean the stage after the close of the second play, Graceland, however, is a quirky and endearing decision, though I would recommend a more vigorous transformation, a better change of set between the plays. Throwing a white sheet over the set pieces, rubbing chalk off of the wall and calling it a new design is not particularly a sign of artistic intelligence…
These plays each demand a severe amount of attention, forcing the audience to be responsive or obedient and requiring a high level of engagement and concentration, for varying reasons subject to each performance. Unless the right conditions are met [as they are, on the whole, for Graceland — and Graceland only], this is usually not a good thing for one play, let alone three. There is very rarely a chance for the audience to breathe on this evening, other than in the interval which overran…because of the high complexity of the set change, no doubt! For this reason, pacing –– in both the written texts and the performed –– is an issue across all three plays.
I will say, however, that each retains a definite sense of originality, presenting materials in dimensional and, for a good amount of the time, refreshing ways. Each has a very clear and individualistic use of space and imagery and a very clearly defined mood, tone and style, though this is not always to the play’s advantage, as I will detail further below. Many choices for content and style remain rather repetitive, and the manner in which materials are communicated becomes rather predictable and unvaried. I would have liked to see more variation in all texts.
“An evening of performances in dire need of cogency, clarity and stylistic refinement.”
Written by David Spencer and directed by Alexander Knott and Ryan Hutton.
Ignoring the highly questionable presence of the other actors, as detailed in the introduction above, the very first image we walk into is most remarkably atmospheric. Mist is controlled wonderfully and has been permitted to build and settle in the air for the perfect amount of time. Such control is commendable and surprisingly rare. The set for this performance has dimension and expanse. Visually, this is a very stimulating image…until time progresses and we notice that set pieces are being used neither sufficiently nor coherently and that the large rocks that constitute a great portion of the set are simply very ill-painted and slightly crushed cardboard boxes. As soon as the lights permit a clearer view, one notices that, beyond the basic symbolistic palette of earthy browns and dark blacks, there is very little logic to be found in the pieces that constitute this design. What is the topography of this set? What do these set pieces represent all together? Dilapidation, debris and earthiness certainly remain clear motifs, but what else does this set facilitate beyond rudimentary visuals? And what specific practical functionality does it provide, other than providing various levels for a rudimentary sense of a changing visual perspective, and how does this progress plot or narrative? A most tacky design.
On to the action of the play itself. This play demands an incredible amount of brainpower from its audience. The eye is commanded to follow James Demaine (Max) around the stage as he covers its entirety, darting from wall to wall and corner to corner; the ear, to listen to an unending and uninterrupted soliloquy; the mind, to piece it all together. There is not a single moment for respite or reflection as the play meanders through an extensive list of material, of Max’s detailings of memories and life events. The text is most suffocative in this way — and not in an artistic sense, drawing on the theme of live burial… This is even echoed by the lighting which remains exhausting in its sheer number of states. I will say, however, that the lighting, if a little literal in its symbolism, does retain some efficacy, successfully intensifying moments such as Max’s evocation of a KO in boxing or drowning in water, complemented by deep and timely coloured washes. For the early burial scenes, the dim and unfocused spotlight directly above Demaine makes for a very powerful visual, obscuring Coezens’s legs and aiding our imagination away from the fact that he is simply standing on a platform, very effectively.
One principal reason behind why this play is so overwhelming is its propensity towards [needless] audience interaction. When audience interactions and participations genuinely drive the performance along, or when they have a particular impact or add a certain je ne sais quoi that absolutely no other technique can produce, only then are these 1) required and 2) effective. From the moment they are made, audience interactions immediately cause us to become aware of ourselves, the unspoken performer-spectator contract and the “real” world that exists beyond the play, and so this must be used only when specific to the chosen theatrical mode and style. With such an overuse of this in this performance, we become forcedly aware that this is an actor, and the only impact generated in these moments are either awkwardness or a long-awaited spotlight for the singled-out spectator and an interest amongst other spectators in how this spectator will react. Thus, interactions in their sheer, exhausting volume are completely unnecessary in this performance. Demaine consistently singles out one audience member and delivers his lines to them, and this becomes so particular to the play that it begins to subtract from any poignancy or illusive realism. These forced recognitions do not facilitate the action in any way whatsoever and should be omitted completely. A terrible and most amateur decision.
Related to Demaine’s audience interactions, we have his expansive movements. Demaine covers the stage most unnaturally, often quite conspicuously darting from one side of the stage to the other simply to interact with yet another spectator across from the last. This has that dreaded tennis-match effect in theatre, where our heads are forced from left to right to follow about an overly energised performer. Then, we have the relationship between Demaine’s movement and the stage’s topography. It is clear from early on in this play that certain areas of the stage have certain significations –– Centerstage, for example, is where Max’s live burial is repeatedly portrayed. Yet, this becomes lost very quickly in the latter half of the play when, for instance, Demaine simply raises his arm stiffly to his cheek as he normally does for these burial scenes, and portrays the burial but whilst situated elsewhere, far from Centerstage. Moments like these, which become far too frequent, make for a great disruption in our reading of the stage’s geography, and these designated areas start to lose their significations and qualities. Overall, movements remain highly repetitious and outlandish. In a play of this length, such rigidity can easily be avoided.
Another reason behind this sense of over-animation is the number of characters that Demaine is forced to represent. Whilst he remains transformative and proves rather good acting skill, there is already far too much for the senses to take in in this play, and these shifts in character make for further such complications. Demaine’s direction and the nature of the text do seem for a good part of the play to be in conflict with one another, and I would recommend revisiting the text and acknowledging the role of pace, how scenes could be better brought to life through a more self-contained approach [i.e. with less audience interaction] and how space and set can complement the action in a less crude way.
The overall content, however, becomes rather bipartite, alternating between these burial scenes and Max’s expressions of nostalgia, for which he details his memories of relationships and interactions with relatives and friends such as with priests or the oft-mentioned Charlie. With music –– which came to premature halts far too often –– persistently marking the transitions between these, this grating sense of bipartition is much accentuated. Yet, the material presented within these two parts are endlessly permitted to bleed into one another; it is sometimes difficult to gauge when one ‘segment’ has ended and another has begun. This should be reworked [again, perhaps this is a matter of pacing].
Structure and style aside, there is a certain allure to this text. It is at points comedic and flippant and, at others, heartfelt and rather profound. The text develops a good sense of character and character background, and themes of emasculation, suffering and endurance certainly ground its content. I would just be aware of over-fragmenting the narrative, as this is certainly an issue for this play, rendering it rather stylistically predictable and hence less impactful.
“An evocative and rather poignant play utterly lost to over-performativity, poor structuring and a weak use of imagery.”
Written by Max Saunders-Singer and directed by Sonnie Beckett.
This play is the shortest of the three. It begins with the unmarked entrance of an unpunctual and buffoon-like teacher, Mr Crichton (Anthony Cozens), who trips over and falls onto the floor after losing his footing. With no change in the natural lighting state and no significant introduction, this remains a very clever anti-illusory beginning that contextualises and stresses the immersion that is to follow.
The audience are treated as though this teacher’s secondary school students. They are asked questions, reprimanded or commended, given names and identities, and even provided lines. This is done in a most impressive and seamless way, with real science textbooks being passed around the audience who will have to read from them –– only, these are no ordinary readings; lines have been stuck onto each page, and these will be read as if we “students” are asking questions, making jokes or, more rarely, following along with the lessons. This setup, and, certainly, the control that Cozens demonstrates over the text and his audience, are definitely most remarkable and intelligent. The structure and writing are very good in this respect.
This play’s content, however, suffers from a ridiculous lack of realism, which is extra problematic, given that the performance style remains distinctly realistic and not absurdist, melodramatic or surreal. A certain shock factor is certainly favoured over credibility, and this makes for an acute predictability in all aspects of the performance. The material is wildly far-fetched; for example, the projection of pornography is rather [worryingly] realistic and not too wild an occurrence in a modern classroom, but then it is revealed that the main performer in this porno is actually Mr Crichton’s wife, and not only this, but there are no less than three of his co-workers behind the porno’s production. Then, there is the revelation of the alcohol, then the pistol, and then, finally, its shooting.
The content gets more and more over the top but not to a comically facetious, absurd or comedic advantage; it is all simply too indigestible by the end. And this is without logicalising the material: this would never happen. Would we, the students, not know that this was, indeed, his wife? The jibing lines we are provided set this reality up as a mere joke, and it seems simply too much when this is revealed to be the truth of the situation, unbeknownst somehow to us. Why does this teacher who seems to handle the class rather well throughout, particularly with his grammatical corrections of the dirty message left for him on the board, buckle towards the end and fail to cope with the heckles and actions of his students? Why is he so steadfastly committed at the beginning yet so despondent at the end? These items, amongst others, make for too great an absence of realism.
It just seems as though this performance wanted to go out with a bang, as it were –– quite literally, it seems, with the shooting of the pistol –– but this constant climaxing makes the overall text seem crude, bland. I would recommend either far lighter and more credible content or changing the style completely, from humdrum realism to chaotic absurdism or something of that calibre, to match.
“A performance with a great premise but lacking in the appropriate creativity to benefit concept.”
Written by Simon Stephens and directed by Alexander Knott.
Finally, we have the feature play of the trio, Nuclear War, performed by Zöe Grain and Freya Sharp. This play remains extremely cryptic. Much like with Buried, Nuclear War forces so much down the throats of its audience –– physical theatre, dual character representation, over-diversified content, use of superfluous props, and so on –– that its meaning becomes completely lost.
I shall start with content. Because of the sheer amount of material that constitutes this text, this play, which sets out to cover a lot, really says very little overall. There is very little, if anything at all, to ground this text; there are no common threads between sequences to join the material together. What we are left with is a series of existential ponderings or expressions of torpor and despondency, and these are presented alongside instructive “lectures” on scientific or philosophical thinkings, such as those about time and sex. These do not combine well to give us a cohesive and coherent text. Time, its passing and its effects, however, do become a recurrent motif but only halfway into the play, and so the only item that could join all of the otherwise disparate contents of this play together remains a seeming afterthought.
The questions really remain: what is this play actually about? What is this play trying to communicate? If, for example, this sense of existentialism is the crux of the narrative, aided by these unique small pleasures that are mentioned, such as sitting Belgian waffles upon the brim of coffee mugs to change texture, flavour and sweet appeal, then this should be the sole focus of the play, and everything else, just like these pleasures, should relate back to and complement this; everything else should be secondary to this and should build upon it. A play, especially one of this length, should very rarely aim to fulfil multiple trajectories.
A more focused and elucidatory narrative aim would also further aid our reading of character that is complicated by having “A Woman” be represented by two performers. A successful dualisation of character sees one character represented by two actors, each portraying a specific opposing aspect of the character’s identity or an opposing feature of their psychology. To better understand what I mean by a successful dualisation, I would recommend reading my review of Katharine Richardson and Caldonia Walton’s Weight/Wait. The “dualisation” that we see in this text is simply needless. They do not challenge our understanding of identity, for they represent characters in an identical fashion. The only thing they really do facilitate is a use of physical theatre. In fact, I find their signification to be very ill-conceived, given that they clearly do not represent “A Woman” at all times, one example being in these “scientific” lectures. The function of two actors performing this role definitely needs to be readdressed.
The verbal language offered in this dramatic text has a distinct textural and sonic quality about it which is very demanding for a performer, requiring extensive practice and rigour. I commend the performers for achieving this, particularly with respect to lines delivered in unison; these can often sound robotic and slow, but the two have definitely refined this in practice. Although, I must nevertheless note that they still need to be even tighter. Both performers tripped up on their lines a few times, which is inexcusable for a performance that relies on precision and diction in such a way, and this was most subtractive. I should also add here that there is also a problem with projection, with Grain delivering her lines much louder, and hence much clearer, than Sharp.
The same can be said for the physical language. Grain and Sharp definitely need to sharpen their physicality. Yet, movements were decisive, and the use of physicality, overall, made for an intriguing storytelling technique in this performance, offering an oftentimes visually pleasing symmetry. Some visuals are definitely directly borrowed and unoriginal, and the use of chalk and its significance definitely needs to be rethought, but, on the whole, this is an aesthetically pleasing piece.