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[Review:] JADE CITY, The Bunker Theatre, London.

Jade City is currently playing at the Bunker until 21st September.

Brendan Quinn (playing Sas) and Barry Calvert (playing Monty) were excellent in pulling off both the persona and dialect of a typical Belfastian. The casting was definitely successful in choosing the right performers. Their characterisations of Monty and Sas were just as cogent, offering strong and distinct mannerisms, traits and particularities. Whilst the actors did stumble over their lines quite a bit, Quinn and Calvert were still very confident and convincing performers.

Whilst the actors’ energies were faultless, they soon run out of steam for me, but this was not due to their capabilities as performers but to the writing (Alice Malseed), i.e. the strength of the plot and the characters themselves. Its structure and material became much too repetitious. I understood that the character’s Game, paired with constant interludes of reminiscence of their youth, was meant to demonstrate that the characters were stuck in their childish mindsets, in a mentality that caused them, particularly Monty, to be blind to the ramifications of their actions and to see themselves as having little responsibility in the real world. However, I felt that there were too many features that communicated this: the real world of the characters is depicted through the eyes of Monty and Sas as they regularly describe the sorts of people in their vicinity; Monty and Sas imitate other characters (e.g. Katie and the Bartender) with rather playful and lowbrow attitudes; they gain knowledge from unintellectual and indirect sources (viz. advice from Judge Judy or from Internet forums); etc. In short, there is little to ground these characters in the real, active world as adults.

Whilst all of these produce a sense of coherency, comprehensibility and, above all, theme, and whilst this should, theoretically, be a mark of good writing, it becomes overkill very quickly. We come to understand the characters and the world they live in very early on, so early on that it is soon time to move on to something else. This is why a complication to the mix is necessary, yet the complication in this play, that of the fate of Katie, is a rather extreme leap. Not to mention that Monty is not represented as too sexual an individual until very late into the performance, and so his evildoings seem incongruous in that respect too.

I should note here that Jade City promotes itself as an exploration into male mental health, yet I find its extremity to be very counterproductive for this, as the average male does not have sex, rape and murder in his primary consciousness. I will say, however, that the Game is a particularly useful [preliminary] tool for such an investigation, given collective male gaming culture, its prevalence and relationship with dissociation. But this is not enough to contextualise it as a realistic exploration of male mental health, and I feel that this description is quite an overstatement.

Extremity aside, there is a huge sense of relatability with this play. Audience members, particularly Belfastians, will immediately identify and relate to its material, and it is clear that this is one of the objectives of the play: to create a fiction based in reality, where characters and events are tangible and founded upon real behaviour and actualities. All of this is achieved mostly, of course, not only by Monty and Sas’s mannerisms and personae but through their persistent reminiscing. This relationship with the audience is successfully evoked in the very opening where Quinn and Calvert appear in the house, as though they are ordinary members of the public who emerge from our very space and become fictitious once on stage. It is then intensified throughout the play with closed dialogue occurring within the constraints of the ring and indirect audience address taking place outside of it. This is a clever use of topography and one which makes the differing modes of the play work. More on the ring later.

An issue I have with the beginning, however, but also with various segments of the play, concerns this mode of address. This seems to be a recurrent problem in the theatre I have seen of late, but it is important that the performers know whom to address their lines to –– each other or the audience? This particular dramatic text allows for a more fluid mode of address, some lines, nay scenes, being descriptive and self-reflective rather than progressive or diegetic, and this is a strong and successful feature of this performance. However, this style must be calculated and decisive, and these modes should not leak into one another as they did in the beginning and in other parts of the performance. I should note as well that whilst Quinn reacted clearly to Calvert’s closed lines, the same cannot be said the other way around for Calvert. It must also be decided what the other character is doing whilst the other is delivering his – sometimes rather extensive – lines.

This performance made for some very bold and hence very notable aesthetic decisions (designer: Timothy Kelly) which I shall detail now. Though rather literal and unimaginative, in my opinion, the wrestling ring was a good image for this performance, evocative not only of masculinity and its performativity but also of the over-indulgent artificiality of Monty and Sas’s Game and of the dissonance, conflicts and tensions that will surface in their friendship. This latter was specifically accentuated by the two sitting on opposing sides of the ring, bringing their stools together or moving them apart when dis/engaging with one another. At the end, when only Sas remains, it is as though one opponent has won, linking all of this into the satisfaction and ease Sas must conflictingly feel, with the cause of the deterioration of his mental health being somewhat eliminated. The ring also makes for a degree of transportation: the ropes being lifted as though the mattress; the stool giving height to Monty as he pretends to be a seagull; etc.

The most unique visual element of this performance, however, was the inclusion of the script itself, the characters’ lines being projected on a high-up screen at the back of the stage. This provides a very interesting layer to the play. It causes the text and the characters to be distanced from one another, making the characters seem as though timeless visual representations of a textual reality, or making them seem more real, that their lives are being recorded, transcribed. In both scenarios, however one wishes to interpret it, a textural, substantial sense of reality is created, and this was a strong point for this performance.

But this feature also provides a layer of danger: the audience knows the lines and expects the actor to read them word-for-word, which is always very satisfying and impressive. This was not the case in this performance; not only did Quinn and Calvert miss some lines completely, but they also stumbled over their lines, starting their deliveries over, ad-libbing. This was most distracting and dissatisfying, and this feature should only have remained if the actors were confident they could pull it off.

I understand that this feature could also benefit the hard-of-hearing, yet if this was, indeed, intentional, it should be noted that character names should never be omitted, as this can be hard to follow, especially when the projection lags or actors miss lines or when the formatting of the projected text is strange and changing — all being the case in this performance. This is a problem that occurs much too often in theatre for the deaf.

I believe it was Quinn and Calvert’s cogent performance that really made this play. The writing, in my view, is more of a work in progress and could do with serious cuts, but it certainly has a tone, texture and rhythm which is most prosperous. I would just have liked to see more variation in the content and more congruity with regards to Kate’s relationship with the story. It is not so much of an issue of how her fate is introduced, as this is done rather effectively in its repeated subtextuality; it is, instead, more of a matter of content: how does childishness, dissociation and immaturity come together with sexual abuse? The links are certainly possible but are inarticulate in this performance which prioritises its relatability to those familiar with Belfastian life.

“This play has trouble juggling its extreme and banal content but is successful in creating a texturised, escapist and relatable world.”

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