[Review:] SAD, Omnibus Theatre, London.
Readers should note that I saw this performance one day early, when it was still in its preview stages.
This review will consider SAD, a play written by Victoria Willing, directed by Marie McCarthy and staged at the Omnibus Theatre.
Firstly, the set. This is a truly beautiful set design by Alys Whitehead. It is intricate and detailed, hyperrealistic and, most importantly, appropriate to the text. Because of how immaculate this design is, however, elements that are not so refined stick out sorely from the rest. One such element is the pair of chairs Stage Left. These chairs are far too corporate and clash violently against the otherwise homely and tattered pieces around the stage. Another such element is the trees we can glimpse behind the apartment block. If we are in the attic, we should not be able to see the lower trunk of these trees but merely their canopies. Then, we have the floorboards that ought to be extended further downstage. Finally, the door to the attic is far too thin and flimsy, which is less of an aesthetic issue and more of an issue regarding practicality; the actors make efforts to shut this door gently, often compromising momentum and mood in the process. Other than these elements, a fabulous and exemplary design.
The same cannot be said, however, for the video graphics (designed by Dan Light) projected onto the back wall of the stage. Both bearing absolutely no relevance to the performance or the rest of its visuals and inconsistent in their own fluid visuals, the inclusion of these video graphics is entirely debatable. They are subtractive, visually unappealing and simply confounding. Personally, I would remove them altogether.
On to the performance itself, starting with the dramatic text. This starts off as a very endearing and somewhat original concept. Its characters are inviting, and the context they are forced into due to Gloria’s (Debra Baker) bizarrely manifesting seasonal depression is most engaging in its peculiarity. However, because of how particularised and interesting the setting in which this performance takes place is, it is expected that we will learn a lot more about it and the characters within it. Truly, we do not.
My first disappointment was the lack of naturalism between Debra Baker and Kevin N Golding (playing Graham), and this was mainly down to issues with expressivity, which pose a huge problem for these actors, though in different ways. Firstly, Golding. Golding’s movements are repetitive, to the point where they almost entirely alternate between aggressive finger points and forcing the hands forwards before the chest, the fingers closed, as though presenting an argument or idea. These are presentational gestures that are rarely used in natural everyday communications. On top of this, his intonation is incorrect, his speech too structured and artificial, and his overall expressivity practically nonexistent apart from in his stiff presentations of rage. Baker, however, has great vocal expressivity and understands her character’s intentions well in this way, but corporeal expressivity and emotionality are far too underplayed. She lacks vitality and vigour in her performance — and not in a way that suits her character’s lethargy or depression. I should be more specific, however, and note that she handles naturalistic speech adequately but only when addressing her lines to other actors; when portraying Gloria’s voice recordings, naturalism is far from impressive [though this is also an editorial issue]. The strength of her character — in the very early part of this play only — is conveyed uniquely through the vocal delivery and the writing of Gloria’s lines.
It is the first scene between Daniel (Lucas Hare) and Magda (Izabella Urbanowicz), however, that disappoints me the most. From this scene onwards, the play’s material becomes eclectic, unfocused and, frankly, rather vapid. As I shall continue to explain, the text becomes an incessant and uninspired political rant, directionless, shallow and overly artificial, and we lose the intimate setting and any depths in the relationships between the characters. The shift alone from Gloria’s attic into Daniel’s office is incredibly disruptive, and structure in narrative must aid the performance’s visual and contextual multifariousness in this way; alas, as I shall detail below, it does not.
A shining light, however, is Urbanowicz. This actress has wonderful command over her role. She is wonderfully expressive, has great diction, and portrays Magda with confidence and vitality, conscious of her character’s emotions, objectives and motivations. Next, Hare, clearly an equally talented actor, has developed, too, an excellent profile for his character. However, the insipidity of the character he plays, and the manner in which this character is represented initially in his first scene vs hereafter overstretches him. The character profile he eventually assumes is far too caricatural and lifeless, and Hare seems unable to breathe sufficient life into it. I should like to add here as well that his fighting with Golding is simply awfully managed. Completely unrealistic and uninvigorated.
This sense of insipidity persists from this scene between Daniel and Magda onwards, and for various reasons. Arguments ignite far too early, are all much too similar and each reveal very little about our characters. Any new information that we do learn about the characters, such as that Graham once shoved and shouted at Gloria when blindingly drunk or that Magda grew up in a confusing and abusive household, is just thrown carelessly into conversation, without a leadup of any sort, not growing organically or in line with the natural progression of human conversations and with natural patterns of human speech. This aforementioned example of Graham’s ill-treatment of Gloria is one that illustrates how this information tends to come too late, remaining too superficial and hence ineffectual. This information certainly alludes to deeper backstories and troubles between the characters, but only towards the very end of the play, by which point we should already understand their shared past and emotional history and be expecting a resolution or closure of sorts, or, indeed, the opposite: a tragic downfall. Willing attempts to blend this conflict and resolution into one instance, with the characters bonding once again shortly after, and this is most unsuccessful. This is without mentioning the terrible attempt to portray Graham’s jumping out of the window. This was ridiculously artificial, lacking the correct corporeal tension and vigour and exposing the lack of skill and direction of the actors.
Usually preceding the oft-employed discourse marker, ‘anyway’ in this performance, this manner of injecting random pieces of information is rather endemic to this performance whose writer clearly wants to infuse her text with depth, detail and richness. The result, however, is a disruption of naturalism and of momentum and thus a complete destruction of credibility. Graham’s story about the homeless man on the train, for instance, seems to come out of nowhere, following this rule of introducing a story, providing seemingly insignificant and overly specific details — like this homeless man’s tie — then proceeding with an ‘anyway’ to return to the main story at hand. We then return back to the main ‘narrative’ or conversation as though nothing has happened.
More significantly, the characters, especially the males, seem to hyper-fixate on cultural and sociopolitical issues but to little avail in adding depth to their personalities or psychologies. Topics such as police brutality, anti-capitalism, sexism and classism…these are all relevant and contemporary issues, but how are they complementing and colouring this text and its characters, beyond allowing, or forcing, us to choose the antagonists and the heroes of the dramatis personae, the likeable and the contestable, the anarchists and the peacemakers? Merely recounting memories of sexist fathers and abusive authorities does not add weight, relatability or profoundness to our characters; we must see how these items have shaped them into the people they are today, how it makes them see their world, how their world treats them because of and via these external forces. More importantly, we should not only be informed of these effects through the characters’ conversations; we should be able to observe them in everything the character does — for this is the true hallmark of profound psychological trauma.
Graham’s incessant groaning about the higher powers ruining the world for those below, or Gloria’s claim that the world is a horrid place of poverty, famine and disease, are not enough to contextualise or enrich either of these characters. We understand that they are frustrated at the world, yes, but we must go beyond this. We do not. We earn no understanding of them whatsoever beyond that these are pessimistic ‘social justice warriors’ of sorts. We can thus perceive in them no originality or individuality, as these are rather commonplace rhetorics in today’s society; they are not new or fresh takes on life, and this further dampens the psychological significance of these perspectives. These characters quickly lose the identities that they once had at the very beginning of the performance, becoming mere mouthpieces for the sociopolitical perspective of the playwright, and this is most destructive of illusion and depth.
Furthermore, we have certain inconsistencies that compromise the credibility of the action. One such inconsistency is in the realisation that Magda is willing to give a hand job to a housing officer in a desperate attempt to be relocated, and yet she does not bother to approach the authorities about the figurine that his son had clearly stolen from her house in the burglary, despite having blackmailed him with it initially, which seems like a simple and practicable solution. Furthermore, sticking with Magda’s character, we can observe little character development that sees her change her mind about going back home, the greatest challenge for her. We are simply just to accept that she has made up her mind, despite having seen nothing that would lead her to do so, beyond one supportive comment from Graham — but surely this would not be sufficient to encourage her to leave the country and set off into the unknown…? As written above, these characters are far too shallow; we have to do our own, independent digging to imagine their complexity, as rich details like the ones omitted here are simply not provided by the text.
On a similar note, we have the dance routine carried out by all of the actors but Hare. We must read into this further ourselves to understand that this is a symbolic representation of Gloria reliving her past memories, enjoying her friendships and her past pleasures. Textually, this dance routine is simply not introduced, and the incongruous transformation of performance style here further intensifies this scene’s lack of relevance to and consistency with the rest of the performance. This scene has far too great a contrast from the others. And this is without mentioning how the actors merely seem to be going through the motions of the routine, awkward and almost embarrassed, as evidenced by Baker’s self-acknowledging and flippant facial expressions.
I mentioned above that the writing has a tendency to see the characters recount stories and memories in great detail, without giving thought to naturalism, compromising the characters’ credibility. Another similar notion is that Willing also provides us with less extreme and fleeting minor details to add a sense of depth and backstory to the characters. One example of this is Gloria’s comments that one should brush one’s teeth in an up-and-down motion, not in a circular motion. The former will certainly abrade the surface of the teeth and cause the gums to recede over time; a circular motion is certainly recommended by dental professionals. It is also incorrect to suggest that a breath that ‘smells of aluminium’ is ‘the first sign of decay’; in fact, this metallic quality — iron in this case, not aluminium — is not common at all for those with bad oral hygiene. It could be symptom of gum disease, however, and a dental receptionist who is so keen to impart their acquired knowledge to passing clients would certainly be aware of this nuance in terminology. That Willing wishes to include such passing details is commendable; they add richness and quality to characters, in theory. However, it is essential that these details are accurate, that extensive research is done by the writer to make sure that they are both factually correct and contextually appropriate. Otherwise, the effect is quite the opposite: credibility is lost, and the characters seem more unrealistic than before, becoming mere embodiments of uncareful writing.