This review will consider Tina Jay’s Syndrome, directed by Jack Brett Anderson and staged at the Tristan Bates Theatre (located in The Actors Centre).
Unfortunately, I find this play to be very uninspiring and bland, and its reasonings to be highly over-intellectualised. The text appropriates the sufferings of the soldiers of the Gulf War to, essentially, tell the story of a soldier turned gay whilst in the army. Its manner of communication is highly fallible, depicting characters through a certain sensationalisation and unrealism. It is, admittedly, the text itself with which I have a problem, however, as I find the actors to be most strong and skilled. The actors each demonstrate transformativity and vitality and assume their roles with vigour and high engageability. The only issue I have with the actors is that their overall delivery of banter is rather overcooked, wooden, but, other than this, this is a cast of remarkable performers.
The dramatic text we are presented is very unstable and inconsistent, extremified by the drastic changes of time, place and character in the second act. Suddenly, Matt (Robert Wilde) is homosexual, turned gay by Gabe (Akshay Kumar) with whom he professes to have felt a deep and magic chemistry, despite such being completely inexistent and unrepresented elsewhere, and his strong and longevitous heterosexual relationship is now falling apart thanks to one isolated [and confounding in itself] kiss with a man; the characters suddenly all have a profound respect for Gabe and admire him after showing him nothing but hatred, ostracisation and disapproval; Tayze (also played by Kumar) is suddenly comfortable with such intimate and romantic activities as spooning and handholding later on in Act II and does not want to be paid, without any significant changes in his and Matt’s situation… All of these features make for a fluttering and incoherent text.
It seems as though Jay’s writing is far too concerned with events as opposed to realistic and palpable character developments, as changes in plot are incongruous and specious. As the play ‘progresses’, its content moves further and further away from what it originally started out as. Whilst some of these drastic changes are plausible, we need to see a development in order for them to seem natural and, above all, for them to be legible. For example, given that Gabe was so reticent, reserved and loving, what could Tayze, a flamboyant and erotic rent boy, justifiably have in common with him, other than homosexual interests and our metatheatrical understanding that this is, in fact, the same actor who portrays them both? Features like these make the text seem wildly unsure of itself. We are left with absolutely no understanding as to what makes the characters feel the way they do. There is simply not enough information to contextualise such drastic changes as entire transformations in character profiles: Ray’s (Romario Simpson) transformation from lascivious Jack the Lad to committed married father, for instance.
I find the text to be highly vapid in areas, particularly with the characters’ extensive focus on sex and little else. We learn extremely little about the characters because of such content, and this is what makes changes in the characters’ profiles and the events in their lives seem so flawed and unfeasible, as the sole facts that we are presented, such as Matt’s sheer devotion to his wife, are soon entirely contradicted or subverted. The second act is far more concerned with the psychology and reasoning of the characters; we finally get a glimpse into the way they see the world, but it is rather too late by this point. Other than Gabe, no characters reveal any palpable aspects of their personalities, emotions or psychologies. When we are presented other, new facts, such as Matt suddenly being head over heels in love with Gabe, a certain disparateness, a friction occurs, and the text becomes convoluted and illegible. In this way, the first and second acts feel like completely different plays. One could, indeed, present these two acts as self-contained, separate plays and they would function just as well.
I find it perplexing how little the war actually features in a play about soldiers. Jay confesses to hoping that she has depicted the Gulf War with historical accuracy, yet the only readable features of the Gulf War remain the burn pits and the ingestion of and [to some degree] the effects of PB. It is clear to me that Jay wanted to represent some impacts the Gulf War would have had on the soldiers themselves, concentrating on how this war may have impacted their lives, their minds. For this, I would recommend a complete restructuring of the text, wherein we start with the soldiers after the war (which would make sense, seeing as the post-war effects are the main focus of this story) and wherein flashbacks are used to depict specific and important moments that occurred during the war itself. Otherwise, to have the four soldiers sit around talking endlessly about banging women for the entire first act with little else to constitute the material of the play just seems most needless, not to mention celebratory of a very toxic masculinity and misogyny.
As for the very writing itself, I find its structure to be most repetitive in places. There is a bland poeticism that shows itself from time to time, following a frame exemplified by this series of questions taken loosely from the text: "Do you think it will ever end?" "What, the war?" "No, the burning." Moments like these do not follow the natural patterns of speech. The suggestions made by the second speakers in these series are always out of context; it is unnatural the way they read the questions, a reading written only to produce the vapid dramatic effect in the last statement. This is most particular to the moment when Matt asks Gabe a question which he –– somehow –– reads as "When did you know you were gay?", despite the [ungrammatical and unnatural] structure of the question implying this reading in no way whatsoever. These moments are too artificial, utilised blandly for shoddy dramatic effect.
On to set (designed by Jonjo McGuire) and costume. Despite some aspects of the set seeming rather cheap, there is a certain claustrophobia to this design that I definitely admire, from the tight playing area in the first act to the thin gauze composing the back wall of Deno’s (Kerim Hassan) flat, revealing the camouflage netting behind, as though the war remains a backdrop to Deno’s life. Whilst the fundamental aspects of the set, the construction of an army campsite and of rooms, is refined and articulate, I find, again, that there is a certain needless over-intellectualisation underlying artistic decisions –– the fact that the set is within a shipping container, for example. Costume, on the other hand, is very well designed and articulate throughout, though I do find Matt’s costume in the second act to be rather incongruous with his character.
As for technical components, lighting (designed by Matt Carnazza) is simple, in a most effective and intelligent way, and focuses the eye well. Music, however, ignoring the technical difficulties which saw music play when it was not supposed to in Act II, is utterly bizarre. I cannot at all fathom why reggae music and 90’s/00’s music made its way into this play. The selection of songs is completely incongruous with the material and adds an unwanted campiness and regressive exoticism, just another example of the incertitude of this dramatic text.