[Review:] THE ENEMIES, The Bread and Roses Theatre, London.
NB: In this review, as the characters are named after the performers, I have used forenames to refer to the former and surnames to the latter, for purposes of distinction.
A hurried, nervous and excitable duo, Jonathan Parr and Eleanor Neylon (playing characters of the same name) welcome the audience into the Bread and Roses Theatre, ushering them to their seats and providing wine in plastic cups. Upon a bench covered in blue plastic wrap, a disinterested and casual Laura Vivio. She leafs through a plastic wallet, sat next to a table with plastic Evian bottles across from a large plastic sculpture veiled by a plastic bin bag.
The word 'plastic' was used a lot there, you say? That is nothing compared to the explosive visual we are left with at the end of the performance when the precious sculpture is ripped to shreds and births heaps of plastic onto the stage, utterly swamping it with bottles, dishes and bags. The Enemies is a play born from a certain anthropocenic political era. But was this the message behind the play or a theme that propelled it along?
The busy and interactive introduction to this play designates two things: 1. There is a direct relationship between the audience and the performer, as the audience are directly addressed; and 2. This play is to be one of high energy. Unfortunately, for me, both of these were lost almost immediately.
When one decides to have a specific relationship with an audience, it is crucial to maintain this for continuity purposes as well as to ascertain that the audience know their role within the performance. Are they listeners who must be active and on their feet, engaging with the performers? Or are they passive spectators, witnesses to the action? I can only assume by the content of the performance, and by the ending in particular, that the premise of plastic consumption was to be tackled in a didactic, educative way. Do I feel that the performer-audience relationship facilitated this, however? No.
Whilst the performers directly addressed the audience at the very beginning and sporadically throughout, there were huge portions of the play that shifted the focus from immersive and 'real' to distanced and fictitious. After Jonathan and Eleanor have anxiously (un)settled the audience, Laura, on stage, stands and declares that she cannot go on with the presentation for she has realised some facts that work against its cause. For a good while after this moment, there is a failure to acknowledge the audience. The fourth wall is built, so to speak, and a dialogue and narrative that distance the audience from the action ensue: the characters speak of 'the public' (i.e. the audience) who 'have yet to arrive', and an exclusive conversation begins between the characters as they dispute each other's opinions and debate the need to release newfound information. For a long while, the audience are made to watch the relationships between these characters unfurl and to hear a discussion they should not be hearing — as they have 'not yet arrived'…even though they have just been welcomed into the space and invited to ask for more wine whenever desired!
A recognition of the audience is reinstated again and again as the characters interact with the audience, farcically offering even more wine, but this just makes it all the more unclear as to what the function of the audience is.
As the play develops, the narrative turns its focus to the relationships between the characters: we learn that Eleanor and Laura are sisters; we see Eleanor manipulating Jonathan to side with her, tempting him with a proposition of work with The Times; and so on. However, these relationships further complicate the message — if there is, indeed, one — of the play. It is difficult to work out if the play is inspired by current actualities concerning plastic and the environment, speculating the lives of people living within such a sociopolitical context; or if the play is aiming to politicise and educate the audience on such hard-hitting moral matters.
As I alluded to before, at the end of the performance, Laura has a speech that Vivio delivers standing in the middle of the audience. With her back to a great portion of them and directing it above the audience's heads, Vivio says, in summary, that we are brave if we stand by what we believe in alone and continue to do our bit [to better the environment]. So, this performance was meant to be educative! So, why the superfluous narratives amongst the information? Furthermore, if I am frank, not much information was really given. We learned one or two statistics, but the rest of the dialogue was highly repetitive and composed simply of arguments between Laura and Eleanor.
The other thing I mentioned was the energy of the performers, which brings me on to characterisation and the characters themselves. This high energy at the beginning came to a peak at the end but faltered throughout. There was a stark contrast between Neylon and Parr's loud and frantic characterisation and Vivio's quiet and somewhat dry characterisation which drew attention to itself. Despite their energies, however, Neylon and Parr often fell short of depicting the intentions of their characters, for me. It was extremely difficult to work out, for example, at what moment Jonathan's opinion was changed by either Eleanor or Laura.
Taking the example of Eleanor's bribing Jonathan with a work placement for The Times, Parr portrays Jonathan as utterly uninterested, making sarcastic and witty remarks. Then, suddenly, in the next scene, he is happily siding with Eleanor. But why was Eleanor's bribe so convincing, anyway? The open blouse would imply that Eleanor manipulates Jonathan through seduction, yet Neylon did not perform seductively, nor did she perform with a deceitful tone in her voice for us to say that she even manipulated him. Anger came too quickly for the two, as well, particularly for Neylon who would often erupt abruptly at Vivio.
Though, I do believe this was due to the writing (by Laura Dorn) to some degree. As I mentioned before, the dialogue was extremely repetitive, a constant back and forth between Laura and the other two without any truly in-depth facts or opinions. The narrative seemed to focus primarily on their bitchy oneupmanship, which stilted the performance.
Perhaps a directorial decision, however, was the stylised scene towards the end. Suddenly, Neylon is on her knees beside Parr staring up at Vivio. They are in a triangle formation. The performer at the front states their line and then they all swap anti-clockwise. After a few rotations, they start speaking certain phrases simultaneously. This was perhaps the crux of the political message of the play, but, if I am honest, I was so bewildered by the sudden change of performance style and by the growing volume of the ensemble that this message was quickly lost. And then we quickly go back to Eleanor asking Laura to retract all of her statements in order to work for the company again…
On the whole, whilst this play had comedic elements — witty comebacks and an idealised plastic sculpture spilling tens of bottles onto the stage — everything about its performance style and aims was confused. Was it exaggerative and chaotic? Realistic? Stylised? Immersive? Distanced? Was it didactic and factual or dramatic and fictive? It was extremely difficult for me to allocate a clear and singular adjective to this performance, and that is what let it down the most.
It felt as though it were a regurgitation of an anthropocenic dilemma mixed with fictive drama, not at all convincing. It is perfectly fine to rid a play of character, to have performers who simply embody and convey political messages. This, I feel, would have been a better angle for this performance. If not, then the entire play should have been the meeting, aiming to inform its audience, or a self-contained performance that followed the lives of two factory workers and a scientist dealing with the ills of plastic consumption.