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[Review:] COLLOQUIUM, The Hen & Chickens Theatre, London.

This performance has seen quite a drastic transformation since I was asked to review it back in 2021, and it is always a pleasure to see how artists refine and reshape their work.

I will not treat this review as a study of the performance’s ‘progression’ or ‘development’ from this former version to the current, however. Instead, I will treat this as a unique performance in its own merit, only referencing some notable in-/effective differences in the final paragraph of this review.

This performance is incredibly text-heavy, presenting lengthy dialogues and soliloquies, all centred around the theme of knowledge and its exclusivity. Despite the much-needed comedic quips that are thrown in here and there, it retains its seriousness, logic and focus. However, what it gains in coherency, it risks in momentum. Consequently, the creatives have attempted to infuse the performance with as much dynamism as possible, but the effect is far too deliberate. Rises in tension and conflict are extreme, with characters launching items around the stage — George’s (Ben Prudence) chalk, Anna’s (Katie Suitor) papers, Bennett’s (Harry-Jack Robinson) chair. Moreover, the characters’ breakdowns, wherein they resort to shouting, disciplining and rage, seem far too intense and have little realism in their lack of lead-up. This intensity is also emphasised when comparing it to these characters’ fixations upon intellect, reasoning and a sense of coolness in their conceited ‘omniscience’.

A raise in the voice or stiffer physicality could certainly be credible, but regularly shouting or throwing properties in a tantrum rather takes it too far. Given that properties are so sparing and that this performance remains a minimalist design, with its black chairs and ‘chalkboards’ even camouflaging with the black of the performance space, any use of properties or any blatant aspects of costume become extremified visual stimuli from which the audience can discern place, time and style. With such intense focus already drawn to props and costumes, an exaggerative use like this further alienates and dramatises their presence to an excessive and ineffective degree.

Similarly, the space is utilised in its entirety and relied upon too heavily, to create a sense of movement, energy and texture in an otherwise word-heavy text that could perhaps be deemed too static and unenergised. From Prudence standing just to the side of the audience to Suitor standing in the wings Stage Right to the actors generally roaming the stage’s extremities, the space is utilised far too deliberately and excessively. Semiotically, this performance remains confused, unstable in its requests for the audience’s focus and attention and in its directions. Mixing enclosed dialogues with soliloquies that address the audience directly already verges on semiotic confusion, altering the manner in which the audience relate to, function within and receive the material, especially because, although thematically congruous, these soliloquies have little to do with the main plot.

The audience’s relationship to the performance space is routinely complicated. Territories and boundaries are blurred, and it becomes easy for an audience to question their function and role within the performance — invisible onlookers, passive listeners and silent moral supporters, or witnesses. Furthermore, it is not just topographical territories that are complicated in this performance but symbolic ones too. We are asked to imagine that Anna’s initial monologue is, in fact, a conversation with her superiors, and that George’s mentor is seated behind him — “I can talk to you about this, right?” as he addresses the empty chair — despite the fact that Alfred (Sean Bennett) will then enter the stage and be completely oblivious as to what we have just seen. I should also point out that, for this reason, having hitherto addressed this soliloquy to us and not an unknowing Alfred, George’s final summarising line should be addressed to the audience, not to him. I would recommend that the creatives reconsider what is otherwise a mental gymnastics for the audience who must navigate the multiple [symbolic and topographical] territories, voices and styles offered in this performance. A “straight play”, as we regularly refer to it, should not be something to shy away from. Additionally, creatives should not feel the need to embellish such a text with extra spectacularities and vitality, as long as the very text is texturised, layered and energised itself.

Positives. And there are many. This text is very well-structured and coherent. Its characters have clear intentions and motivations, with emotional reasonings — despite this aforementioned tendency to exaggerate them — being well conceived and well communicated. The play poses many questions not only about knowledge, its bounds, its accuracy and the manners in which we arrive at it, but about propriety and professional conduct, the pressures exerted upon budding ‘intellectuals’, and how learned narcissism, learned pride and meritocratic teachings can interfere with epistemological pursuits. Content is certainly impressive, and the writer demonstrates great awareness and reading in the literature appropriate to allow material to feel organic, informed and comprehensive. Language of a higher register is used appropriately to provide characters with idiolects that demonstrate their backgrounds and general profiles, and is, for the vast majority of the text, used accurately. I would just recommend language type be consistent throughout for each of the respective characters. Equally, lexical and logical games are conceived and written well.

Characters are, on the whole, well presented. Identities and intentions objectives are communicated well, both in the text and in the actors’ characterisations, but I should note that the shifts in Alice’s (Alex Gallacher) character are slightly unstable. Seemingly engaging in Alfred and Bennett’s hypocritical and oppressive practices, yet emphatically rebellious against them, it is easy to feel one has been offered a mixed reading of her by the end of the performance.

Characters are in danger of becoming slightly caricatural. This is because, despite their specific interests and motivations being well defined, they remain extremely narrow, their actions and desires limited only to the development of the plot, or namely to progress our understanding of Alfred and Bennett’s “legacies”, their opinions, how they interview, challenge and ‘develop’ their students. The characters remain untextured and univocal in this way, and we learn very little about their psychologies, backstories, humanity. Employing these soliloquies is a good decision to combat this sterility, enriching the text with emotion and feeling, but the ultimate effect is not so yielding.

I have mentioned above that the soliloquies we are offered are thematically congruous with the rest of the text: the social pressures to be an active, well-read and informed thinker, and their effects; personal interests vs ‘appropriate’ academic ones; the loss, discovery and mediation of the self in the pursuit of educating humanity; etc. Nevertheless, how these soliloquies relate back to the main story specifically is completely inevident, and these interludes thus become superfluous anecdotes, failing to progress and enrich the material we have seen hitherto, especially given that we do not return to these characters and their concerns at all. Fleeting interactions between these two distinguished characters, George and Anna, and Alfred and Bennett are not sufficient to ground them into the story and the narrative, I am afraid. It is important to see the generic students’ perspectives, but we are not, indeed, seeing their perspectives on the vital material of the play but on the effects of these aforementioned themes in general. In this way, they become negligible, feeling random and extraneous, despite providing perhaps needed respite from the stricter, heavier material. I would recommend that these characters be better interwoven into the main text and that their stories better reflect the text’s specific subject matter; either these changes should be made, or these characters and their stories should be removed altogether.

Despite a certain superficiality, however, character profiles are certainly legible and consistent. Actors also bring them to life most adequately. Despite a disparity in acting styles, with Suitor’s vitalised and exaggerative profile clashing against Sean Bennett’s cooler and more conservative expressivity, for example — not a conceptual issue but purely a stylistic one — actors have excellent character awareness and emotionality. I would recommend that further peculiarities and idiosyncrasies be conceived by the actors for their characters, for a pensive and somewhat forlorn expression from Sean Bennett, for example, that persists throughout the performance further emphasises this aforementioned shallow caricaturisation. Corporeal and vocal expressivity is good. I would just draw attention to how actors react to others. This needs further direction, as improvised reactivity is proving difficult, with actors perceptibly unsure as to what they should be doing in these short-lived moments of silence. Diction is also a notable issue but only when the actors are performing their characters’ irateness or moments of extreme tension. In these moments, it is common in this performance to have actors trip up their lines or deliver them altogether unintelligibly. Despite these comments, this is an excellent cast, convincing and confident in their portrayals.

Finally, how this performance has progressed. In its linear narrative, coherency has certainly developed. We now have an astute collection of characters and a plot. Theme now has a secondary role, complementing the narrative well, where before it was relied upon almost exclusively to provide the various sections of the text with meaning and interconnectedness. However, one positive feature of the earlier text’s fragmentation was a greater rhythm and momentum, and, as I have written above, I would recommend workshopping more natural, organic and indirect ways to provide this second performance with energy and tension. Energy and tension should come from plot developments alone and only as a by-product, not directly from excessive spectacularities or emotive demonstrations that aim exclusively to bring this tension to the surface. The material should not aim to be powerful and suspenseful; this is sensationalist and shallow. Instead, it should aim to be rich and textured, and any emotional responses will occur naturally. The chaos of the former text, the multiplicity in its various voices and scene types, and topographical organisations in its former staging, also leant into a sense of busyness and population, and I would recommend seeing these soliloquying characters reintroduced into the main body of material for this reason also. Overall, this play is now a lot more legible and refined. Its objectives are clearer, and the qualms of its characters are now distinct driving forces for plot where they might have otherwise been unclear in the former version. A good development.

“A greatly improved text, though creatives need to reconsider rhythm and performance style.”

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