[Review:] MEMORY SOLDIER, Camden People’s Theatre, London.
This action-packed play written and performed by 7th Sense Theatre was good in many aspects, progressing away from the quotidian errors of the average theatre to create a rather effective and lively world.
I will start with set. This was a good representation of how minimal set can be efficacious and imaginative. Whilst the same blocks and the same table were used in nearly every scene, never once did the stage feel static or lifeless. This was due to the set changes between scenes but the orchestration of transitions and the use of props. Transitions were immediate; as soon as the performers in one scene exited, the performers in the next scene entered. This kept an active momentum and fluidity. However, I will note that it is very important to allow an audience to breathe and to digest the action they have seen — especially with a play like this, comprising many characters and a fragmented plot, which I shall return to later. As for props, red powder and what seemed to be flour emulated dirt and smoke well on stage, adding a visual layer to the performance. The use of real food, such as the pie in the beginning of the play and the birthday cake, added a true sense of realism to the performance. These elements compose a book from which a lot of theatre-makers could take a leaf!
Realism was lost, however, in the acting style. Whilst the performance style (the mood of the performance itself) was fluid and, overall, congruous — again, a rarity that must be praised — the acting style (the way in which the actors give life to their characters) was rather inconsistent. At the beginning and end of the performance, with the actors sat in a line on blocks perpendicular to and facing the audience, the dialogue that ensues is fragmented and distilled. The scenes that come between these, however, are a mixture of realistic and abstractive. Because monologues were utilised from the first scenes throughout, the theme of abstraction sat well within the performance; however, it was the way in which the actors teetered between naturalistic and distanced in their characterisations that made it difficult to connect with them. There was a certain woodenness to their performances which crept in quite regularly, particularly in monologues. There was a lack of expressivity and transformativity in places where actors seemed to be simply saying their lines at certain points. Also, certain other decisions seemed rather odd to me, such as certain characters' inevitable moving of the blocks whenever they entered the stage.
The only time that the performance style dipped, for me, was in the Birthday Scene, where the lighting changes to a colder tone and the performers move downstage in slow-motion, only for one of them to be shot and dragged off of the stage. Yes, this was a powerful scene if isolated, though a little reminiscent of an elementary physical theatre, but together with the rest of the performance, this scene was very out of place and overly dramatic in comparison. This was the only moment, really, that performance style suffered; other than this, this play held a sound momentum.
This moment was the only time lighting was really changed, which is not a bad thing at all but did accentuate that breathless quality of action after action. The only other thing to say about lighting concerns its coverage of the stage. Stage Right was mostly in darkness which became a problem when it was difficult to understand if a character was on stage or off whilst motionless, looking on at the action, stood in the darkness.
As for plot, I must admit that I fail to see the depth that this performance has declared itself to have. The play apparently pivots on the effects of PTSD on soldiers and their relationships with others. However, I felt that the topics and themes covered by the play extended further than this, from life (and love life) on the battlefield to peoples' reactions when discovering that a relative wishes to enlist himself in the army. These extensions took away from what the main message of the play was proposed to be. An exploration into one or two themes — the lack of support and understanding that a returning soldier receives from his relatives, or the way in which a soldier handles death in battle, for example — would have definitely made for a much deeper investigation into soldiering. As it stood, the main point of exploration for this play felt weak and confused. The trigger of the dog barking was the deepest this play got, but even this was brushed over. As a result of this superficial investigation, the play seemed to produce simply inattentive and unoriginal themes.
I enjoyed the cyclicality of the plot and its fragmentation, specifically towards the end. The writing was, on the whole, realistic, effective and, in places, comedic as well, which definitely helped in forming an audience-character bond during the performance. Whilst not as thorough as it has made itself out to be, this performance was very entertaining and, on the whole, well put together.