[Review:] FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT, Bridewell Theatre, London.
For the Sake of Argument forces its audience to consider the relationship between words and war, from Eleanor Hickock’s (Ashleigh Cole) argument at the weekly pub debates that causes conflict between the group, to her opinionated writings and their impact upon the ideological thinking of late soldier Mark (Georgie Farmer), to Mark’s monologues such as that comprising a breakdown of cliché as a throughway to encouraging pride in one’s country, and the need to defend it in war. Such a relationship is certainly [rather laboriously] elucidated for the audience, but how the play wants us to digest this and the rest of its material, how it wants us to think about or swallow it remains utterly obscured. Despite the crude factuality and bluntness of the content presented, the overall aims of the dramatic text remain extremely minimal, convoluted and unclear.
This is certainly a play for the politically-minded, or, at least, for those with high interest in politics. Whilst tensions are rising globally on modern soils, world war is definitely something shadowing our minds today, and so this play seems apt and relevant. It seems equally appropriate for this play to consider Britain’s past relationships with war and how ideologies and idolisation of historic figures oft-affiliated with war have shaped the beliefs of our modern society as a whole to the present day. However, as promising and relevant as these items seem on paper, this performance, completely unsure itself, seems unable to make anything of them. The lines of thought raised in this play are utterly unmindful towards plot and remain as simple regurgitations of information with no real bearing or relevance. This play is so devoid of personality and coherency that it almost feels as though its writer, Harry Darrell, simply gets carried away with political reasonings and writes a play simply to express his obsessions.
Really, there are two [very disparate] strands to this performance. One deals with plot and the lives of characters; the other has to do with the rudimentary presentation of “facts”, presented as though significant and influential for the characters of this former strand but, actually, being very bland and unrelatable. It seems in this performance that these two strands cannot co-exist wholly and harmoniously. For now, it is this latter strand I am interested in, that of the presentation of facts. The dramatic text rather unimaginatively presents its agenda in the form of a for-vs-against debate. The ‘characters’ very briefly prepare their arguments before attacking pre-selected subjects. And this pretty much sums up the first act. Facts –– or, rather, schooled opinions –– are thrown left, right and centre, facts on Winston Churchill, facts on David Livingstone, facts on Tony Blair, and more, all of which bear absolutely no relation or significance to character or plot development. The only thing we gain from these debates, right at the very end of them, is the knowledge that Eleanor, who positively riles the group of debaters with her incessant and strong-willed appreciation of Tony Blair’s infamous war on terror, is a pompous, stubborn intellect whose views are not shared by the vast majority; surely the same acquisition of knowledge can be achieved less transparently and more creatively, more subtextually? It simply feels as though Darrell is unable to write convincing and complex main characters, shoving their thinkings down our throats, instead, with no imagination, let alone realism.
The problem during these debates is that we become heavily encumbered with ongoing lists of needless and fleeting information. We also only get one speech each from the for and the against, meaning that these endless facts that we are presented also remain open-ended, unfinished and uncorroborated. It becomes a far-too-simple and endless back and forth of items which remain, within the play, mere unsubstantiated opinions. Everything one person says is exposed as uneducated and incorrect, contradicted with yet another fact, and it just feels as though the initial speech we heard was a waste of our time and that the next speech counteracting it could just as surely be contradicted by another later down the line. Whilst this extremely heavy focus on historical political figures and war devises a distinct lexical field to narrow and particularise our focus, the deeper subtextual significance that this holds within the play becomes absolutely undetectable through the sheer convolution.
The context of a debate, especially one which has no bearing on the events of the play or the lives of the characters, one which is contextual and finalised with the simple vote of a yay or nay, intensifies this feeling of irrelevancy. The debates feel self-contained and unprogressive, detached from the world of the play. Although, there is the added complication that characters seem to treat the speeches they make as though expressions of their own opinions and thinkings, despite their stances of for or against being predetermined and enforced by Eleanor. It is convenient that these preselected stances happen, indeed, to be representative of how the characters truly feel or think… Again, this is evidence of how character and continuity are compromised for this bizarre vomiting of politics.
One can imagine that Mark, who appears regularly in-between scenes, should be our guide in wading through the multitudinous opinions and theories presented throughout the play. One would imagine that his character is a navigator for us, clarifying and reorganising all of the information we have received in such a didactic and cogent way that the reading of this performance desired of us is transparent and accessible. Instead, Mark presents his own rhetorics and theories, supplementing those already delivered. The play becomes a furnace for facts and opinions that simply scream at the audience before dying out, only to be replaced by others just as dilute. What this play is ultimately wanting to communicate becomes far from comprehensible.
The first and second acts feel like completely different performances, and the reason for this is a blatant misuse of character. This is an issue I have encountered with quite a few performances I have seen of late, where characters are used primarily as a mere tool to express thinking, as simple embodiments and voicers of ideology or politics. The characters have no real depth or significance, nor do they move the story along; quite fundamentally, they are part of the play only to apply an explicit political or sociopolitical discourse to a performance, one which could not be achieved so bluntly and easily through different means. This is, really, the worst recent case of this that I have seen, where characters are portrayed completely unrealistically and unnaturally, both in text and characterisation, having speech patterns that do not follow the natural and common, and exhibiting very few, if any, idiosyncrasies. They serve only to deliver the writer’s conjectures, suppositions and proposals.
All characters when debating are written to speak in exactly the same way, despite obvious differences in the way they interact with one another beforehand. A prime and irksome example of this is Billy’s (Harry Farmer) particularised idiolect and how it changes completely when he enters a debate with Eleanor. He is cocky, his language is untrained, and his speech retains a certain colloquialism, yet he is soon entering into loquacious prose with an intellect, in the exact same lacklustre manner of speaking that all the other characters assume when debating, also to the detriment of their essences, identities and personalities. This balance between character and character function is something that definitely needs to be addressed.
Then, there is the overall tone of the play. We go from a topless shouting drunk praying on his knees and a bumbling, babbling fool to a longevous, repetitive and robotic debate, then to an abrasive, cocky junkie, to another personality-less debate, all interlaced with the reflections of a soldier and ending in a near-death experience. It is a rollercoaster of mismatched style and content. In this performance, characters are extreme caricatures, full of vitality, energy, personality and ego. This is completely eradicated in the debate scenes, as depicted above with the character of Billy, where writing becomes uniform and undistinguished. This seems to be something recognised within the text, with Liz’s (Ella May) comedic interjections and outbursts, as though something is urgently needed to both break tension and re-ascertain character and fictionality.
Additionally, the ending is far too extreme, adding a completely different tone of its own, one of erratic disruption and over-drama. Billy turns to functioning as a [caricaturistic] homicidal maniac, set on killing Eleanor for the influence her words had had on his brother. It feels cheap and utterly inconsistent, as though this already moribund performance makes one last cry for drama, theatrical poignancy and resonance. It is as though it was felt that climax and plot is absolutely necessary to finalise a play, regardless of what this particular climax was or how it related to the rest of the play’s content, or even what ending this particular play actually warranted. In other words, there is too much emphasis here on shock and dramatisation as opposed to clever reflection upon what would be suitable for this play. All of this makes the first act, primarily comprising debates, and the second, more concentrated on character and story, feel completely disjointed and dissimilar.
Despite this inarticulacy and incoherency of text, characterisation ranges from average to very good in this performance. Actors clearly have profiles and personae in mind for their characters and treat them accordingly, demonstrating energy and cogency. However, there is definitely a sense of disparity across the characters, with some characters, like Liz, being outlandish and hyperbolic against the otherwise banal Abigail (Lucia France), for example. Admittedly, though, this is much more of an editorial or directorial issue; the caricatures presented in the text, those of the soldier, the fool, the drunkard and the junkie, that I mentioned earlier in this review make it very easy to over-exaggerate in characterisations, as is most certainly the case in this performance. This presentation of social stereotypes is something I find most regressive, especially when contextualised in deliberate comparison against ‘intellectuals’ and the ‘erudite’. Finally, I would just note that whilst her characterisation and physicality is superb, Paula Cassina struggles greatly with delivering her lines with realistic intonation; this is definitely something in need of perfecting.
As a final note on theatrical components, I have very little to say on lighting, music and sound, given their minimal usage throughout. These were all both simple and sufficient. I do, however, have quite a bit to say about the main component in this performance, set (designed by Amy Watts). The set for this play was composed of a framed wooden stage with a stand-alone door Upstage Right, whose floor is replaced by a pit of sand. I imagine that the sand was to imply that the world of the characters, full of conflict and aggression, was a warzone of its own, the sand evoking the barren grounds soldiers are regularly imagined to fight on. This would make sense as to why Eleanor interacts with Liz in front of this sandbox in the final moments of the play, as though she is finding peace in abandoning her world of professed intelligence and turning towards humanity, socialisation and compassion. It does not explain, however, why Mark remains outside of the sandbox at all times, given his direct relationship with war and battles. Personally, I think it was just bizarre to have the characters treading through sand and getting covered in it for the entire production, or to see May brushing it around the stage to imitate sweeping the floor of the pub. A certainly brave set design but one which would only benefit a very different performance. If it adds nothing of significant value to the play or our reading of it, it simply should not be.