[Review:] THE LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT OF HENRY VAN DYKE, Tabard Theatre, London.
This humorous and unique play written by Karrim Jalali and directed by Joy Harrison is currently performing at the Tabard Theatre.
The key defining feature of this play is, of course, its writing. With only two characters, the structure meanders comically from conventional play to metatheatrical representation and back again. This brave work, however, was perhaps ultimately the performance’s downfall.
Metatheatre is often overused for meaningless audience interaction or for quick, passing gags. This is always fallible and destroys the illusive properties of the play. This performance, however, saw a different fate, fruitfully incorporating metatheatre into its very foundation. Jalali’s writing successfully unveils the escapist vision of traditional theatre and reveals the reality of the performance space, toying with monologues, mime, writing styles and references to other parts of the performance, all whilst indirectly deliberating popular opinions on what makes a ‘good’ play. This revelatory framework provided smooth ground for poststructuralist comedy and for playful yet critical inquisition.
I felt that the writing also drew upon and exposed many personal fears and frustrations which all creators endure when making or thinking about their work, comparing themselves to others or their past achievements, feeling that their work would be lost to a sea of unoriginality.
However, already, a complication is emerging: what is the play’s objective? To exhaust the intellectual architecture of a performance space at the audience’s expense? To present critiques of ‘plays’? Or to present ubiquitous yet personal fears, frustrations and worriments? With a duration of one hour, this performance cannot and should not seek to meet all of these.
I think it was a mistake to return from this metatheatrical style to a realistic and traditional one at the end. With the trivial conversation at the beginning of the play, the distancing in the middle, and the comedic qualities throughout, it is impossible for an audience to feel any compassion or pity towards these characters thereafter. To have them at each other’s throats at the end, one severely denigrating the other’s dreams, is hence an untoward decision. One principal message recurring throughout the play is that endings should not have to be climactic and finalised; this would have been a better perspective to end on, refocusing the performance towards comical enquiry as opposed to a banal and lacklustre realism. The ending is almost a counterargument to the rest of the performance which otherwise challenges such artistic norms.
The theatrical techniques referred to when Person 1 (Nathan Wright) and Person 2 (Niall Murphy) consider the physical properties of a play were also very simplistic: the walking on the spot, for example. But with an extension of this self-reflective style, I feel that this would have developed as the play went on. However, the majority of these referenced techniques were also very comedic, and this was productive: the introduction of the ‘real’ actors who would walk through the door and interrupt the performance, the false ending, and the intense dramatic monologue.
Lighting (designed by Joy Harrison; operated by Charlotte Whitaker) definitely facilitated a lot of the humour in this play, with spotlights drawing our attention to the various areas of the stage. Perhaps the most effective use of lighting was during the transition involving the turning of the sofa where the characters reentered their home. The only other use of tech was sound: tweeting birds, and a roaring, applauding audience. The latter intensified the self-reflective perspective of the performance — if a little unoriginal — but this former, utilised frequently, I felt was completely irrelevant and needless.
On to characterisation. I felt that the two actors were somewhat wooden and unnaturalistic in sections demanding realism. Dialogue felt too rehearsed, though this was perhaps due to the writing which did not, I feel, capture natural speech very well. In areas of comedy, however, the two actors definitely shined and were delightful and engaging.
Towards the beginning of the play, eye contact seemed to be an issue for these performers, particularly for Murphy. There seemed to be an over-reliance on certain movements as well, denoting bland characterisation, where Wright would continue to nudge Murphy with his foot, and where Murphy would lean forward and gesticulate in the same way when explaining a fact. If these ‘characters’ had had more of a representative role, not having developing and specified personalities from the very beginning throughout, this blandness would have been fine and would have seen them more as shells of people or workable bodies. As it stood, however, the characters’ long speeches and decisive idiosyncrasies were lifeless, repetitive and rather boring in places. This is a shame, as they are rightfully named Person 1 & 2…so it seems that the intention to use these bodies as vehicles of thought was there. Pauses were much too long, and this extended the more unpolished areas, and it was clear that Murphy had also forgotten his lines just a few times.
Overall, the performance was comical and original but needed to be refined stylistically. The metatheatrical aspect should have been made the overarching crux of this performance; this paired with a weak realism made for an unsteady contrast. As a last note, I am also not too sure about the efficacy of the title in representing the performance…is this to suggest that anyone can and should write a play, despite the pre-defined conceptions around the art form? If so, this is perhaps a little too broad and biased.