[Review:] UNDER THE RADAR, Old Red Lion Theatre, London.
Starting on a positive. As regards the writing itself by Jonathon Crewe, who also directed this play, this dramatic text utilises a fortunate range of techniques to make for an engaging and fluid script. Dialogue is conceived and structured exceptionally well; it is most naturalistic, and conversations are generated and maintained with fluidity and ease; clichéd character speech types are mostly avoided, and speech feels unhindered and effectual. The overall plot is well-conceived. However, fundamental incidents and events that lead to its progression ought to be better addressed and reconsidered. Character development is also rushed, particularly for Lee's (Eleanor Hill) entire character but also in Captain Martin Christensen's (Nicholas Anscombe) breakdown. Martin's profile does remain fairly consistent throughout, otherwise.
As regards the performers themselves, I must say that the acting for this performance is most impressive, and this should not be taken as a light comment. The two performers are both credible, energised and, for the most part, astutely aware of their character intentions. Characterisations are strong, convincing and clear. However, I would pay closer attention to Anscombe’s chosen accent for Martin, which still needs considerable refinement, faltering regularly. At times, characterisations are unignorably clichéd and overly caricatural, such as Anscombe's bizarre breakdown at the end of the play — which really ought to end as soon as Hill touches his shoulder and not with a delay of a few seconds. Although, I do recognise that this is rooted in certain stylistic inconsistencies and extremities in the written text itself, and so this is negligible, overall. Nevertheless, these are most confident and driven actors with great emotional ranges. My commendations.
Turning to Hill’s portrayal of her character’s drunkenness, upon which I must elaborate, given that this is an incredibly important detail of this performance and her character's story, ultimately leading to her unsuspecting death. Expressivity seems to be limited to the face for the most part of Hill's characterisation here, and yet we are still in desperate need of those characteristic heavier eyes and sloping mouth, and we certainly need more fluidity and lack of 'agency' and control as regards corporeal expression. This is somewhat achieved much later, towards the end of the first act, but must creep in far sooner and ultimately be intenser, more apparent — especially if Lee is to be so objectified with no recollection in such a manner as she is. I should also note here that whilst Hill conveys the potency of Martin’s alcoholic drink for the first few swigs, and notably whenever this is marked in dialogue — when they cheers and drink in unison, for example — she seems to forget to demonstrate this consistently, often swigging it down with complete ease, no hesitation, resistance or sense of recoil. Admittedly, she could slowly become accustomed to its potency, but then we still need to see this gradual acclimation; moreover, this cannot be the case, regardless, because we see her recoil in the same manner once again later on. I will note here, however, that her drunkenness is most intelligently worked into the script itself, with stage time coinciding sufficiently and realistically with the amount of time full intoxication may take.
Regarding the text and Hill's character once more, I do not particularly favour the fact that Lee shares the same problematic relationship with her own distant, powerful father. The effect this has on her character's psychology is not worked into the narrative well enough at all and feels like a cheap reasoning as to her troubles and challenges. I would recommend enriching her backstory considerably, as it currently feels as though this trait has been included merely to add a sense of a shared past between the characters, and this is without mentioning that the similarity in their stories feels unimaginative, as though the emotional scope of the characters is limited and simple. Far more complexity is required here to make Lee's character more engaging and, above all, more human. She currently feels like the facilitative representation of the archetypal subject of a feminist's rhetoric: a female unable to change her destiny or reach autonomy, chained to her father's successes, and not a complex human being or character.
I mentioned above that this text suffers from certain stylistic inconsistencies and extremities, and this is observable when comparing the first and the second acts, amongst other items upon which I will not elaborate in this review, for brevity. We go from what is first an attempt at naturalism to a completely satirical, farcical and exaggerative caricatural skit, which only becomes more and more ludicrous as Lee's lifeless body becomes animated, culminating later into a mere talking head. This latter style is most extremely incongruous with the former and is in danger of alienating the audience from what has been, thus far, an otherwise passive, slow and calm drama. Humour seems to have no role in this performance beyond witty remarks and minor antagonisation from the characters; this transformation of style is far too extreme.
Most importantly, however — and this point should not be overlooked — this caricaturisation becomes incredibly insensitive when we realise that this is a fictionalisation of the true murder of Kim Wall by Peter Madsen. In fact, this story is — skeletally, at least — an exact retelling. Gilded by its sociopolitical themes, this entire play can be seen as somewhat of a glorification, a facetious melodramatisation. It lacks a necessary degree of seriousness in its whimsicality, absurdity and humour-based techniques. To turn Lee, representative of Kim Wall, into a mocking talking head, overly expressive, and quick-witted, with flippant lines like 'I'd go away, but I have no legs', is most deplorable. Furthermore, this is also counter-productive, given that one aim of this performance is to force us to 'explore' [more on this wording below] our social duties for compassion and understanding towards victims of such heinous crimes. Overall, the message communicated is that Crewe merely enjoyed the dark goriness of Kim Wall's murder and wished to create a comparatively sensationalist rape-revenge tale that shields itself with apparent sociopolitical agendas in order to exist, ironically, 'under the radar' of otherwise socially mobilised audiences who would, consciously, be resistant to this form. I would urgently readdress how these so-called underlying sociopolitical themes relate to, function within, impact, shape and affect this performance. As it currently stands, it is merely insensitive and abhorrently facetious.
I wrote that more seriousness needs to become of this text, and this comes hand in hand with needed coherency, which is also lacking in this performance. From Martin's sudden, and later recurrent, use of profanity, which is most unbefitting of his character who otherwise remains intellectual and meticulous in regard to his idiolect and vocabulary, blending with Lee’s more direct and emotion-based manner of speaking, to Lee’s gullibility and lack of resistance in moments where we ought to find this, in keeping with her personality type, incoherency is a huge issue for this play.
I shall detail this latter example further: Lee is a very strong character; she is stubborn, strong-willed, self-assured and direct — perhaps even arrogant and rude. The mere revelation that this is all a front, that she is insecure about her talent and place/future within her industry, is not enough alone to justify her later malleability, extreme vulnerability and her emotional outpour to Martin, seeing her perform such actions as detailing her inner sorrows, secrets and emotional history [as superficial as these are] or even asking if he finds her attractive and then flirting with him! And this is without mentioning that this revelation is not a particularly gradual one, either, as the alcohol kicks in, for example. There is a great discontinuity when we consider that this individual, who expresses her drive for her career and her stubbornness against others to achieve her professional goals, is the same individual who, whilst in a professional context, immediately concedes to alcohol and forgets all about her fiancé, unexpectedly allowing herself to let her guard down around someone who is distinctly different from her in every way imaginable. That all of this should be later exposed, or proposed, by Martin to be one of many fruits of Lee’s alcoholism and promiscuity is much too unrealistic. Martin seems to expose quite a lot about her, in fact: that she seduces her subjects to extract her stories, cheats on her fiancé on a regular basis, and, again, has an alcohol addiction. We see here the insipid trope of a psychopathic genius 'reading' his victims in an all-encompassing manner approximate perhaps to Sherlock Holmes. This is too superficial, unnecessary and, most of all, unrealistic; we have had no indication whatsoever of any of these items until now, and their reality thus seems completely unlikely.
There is also a great stylistic and rhetoric-based discontinuity. It is written in official descriptions of this play that it is a 'dark comedy exploring gender, consent, power and violence'. 'Exploration' is used far too uncarefully here. This is not a play that ‘explores’ anything; ‘exposes’ or 'alludes to' perhaps, but not ‘explores’. The mere repetition of male vs female and the recurring motifs of Martin’s obsessive fixation on her female body is not enough to substantiate an exploration of gender. Consent is certainly something that comes to mind, but merely because of external sociocultural teachings that might colour our reading of Lee’s rape; it is not something that is expanded upon or even considered by the text itself. Violence is definitely a palpable theme in this latter part of the play, but, again, this is not incorporated intelligently, either in the characters’ actions or conversations, but merely exaggerated for its sensationalist effects. Most importantly, however, in considering what we might refer to as Martin’s superobjective, is the nuance between 'power' and 'power thirst'. Martin does not lord his power over Lee, beyond perhaps his supply of alcohol. But even in this example and beyond, he never actively forces her to do anything or dominates her in any particular way — which is what makes her sexual abuse all the more thorny and unstomachable — until, again, the start of the second act where he makes his accusations to bring her down. But even this is not lording his power over her but mere intimidation, backing her into a corner with derisions and suppositions of what her ‘vacuous’, 'boring' future might be. Power is not analysed or expressed in this way; lust for power is something very different, however, and this is certainly noteworthy in this performance, considering again Martin’s quest to share his father’s renown.
I mention these items to expose what this play intends to communicate and what the creatives imagine it communicates or achieves vs what it actually does, and how these two are inappropriately misaligned, misunderstood, misconceived. This is precisely what I mean by gilding a sensationalist horror-fanatic play in sociopolitical themes in order to make it seem intelligent, inspired, relevant or poignant. With Under the Radar failing to meet its sociopolitical objectives, all political objectives can be neglected or omitted, or, at the very least, diluted by the caricatural comedic style and themes, and what are we left with but frivolous, naughty [and hence insensitive] comedy? Whilst I am glad the creatives recognise their work as a 'dark comedy' when merely considering its potential genre classification, the role of this comedy, its function and significance ought to be better understood and worked into the text so that comedy might be a true vehicle of such 'exploration', a complementary aspect, and not a mere embellishment.
A few final notes. Transitions are atrociously long, especially for such inelaborate set changes. Deciding to see exactly how long they lasted by the latter part of the play, I counted one transition of 45 seconds, another of 49 seconds, and another of a colossal 53 seconds — almost an entire minute that the audience must wait in darkness and silence, for the thousandth time, for the set to be changed. This is a lifetime in theatre, and this should be urgently addressed.
As regards aesthetics, I must say that this is performance has an awfully conceived set design. The makeshift gauze is an altogether strange decision that does not facilitate or complement the aesthetic in any way whatsoever. In fact, it rather subtracts from the work. Taking up a huge amount of space, tripping up cast members and getting caught on its rail whilst stagehand Jaymie Quinn-Stewart attempts to open and close it, this gauze is also left transparent throughout, and this is a significant issue amid transitions during which the stage remains much too brightly lit, permitting us to see all of the preparation for the scenes to follow in all of its unfortunate glory. Most notably, we see the entire preparation for Hill’s talking severed head — which is otherwise perhaps the best and most refined aesthetic feature paired with Quinn-Stewart’s legs peeking in from the wings Stage Left — and this is absolutely illusion-destroying. The only time this gauze is actually left opaque is at the very beginning of the play, which is pointless, given that the set pieces are concealed with black fabric, anyway. Location changes and scene changes can be denoted merely by blackouts and slight reorganisations of the set alone. And this brings me on to the other set pieces. The submarine hatch is…terrible. Half-coated with cheap and streaking metallic paint, this hatch is far too cartoonistic and artificial. Spinning its thin, papery wheel, Anscombe does not communicate Martin’s genius but rather that he is a deluded and childish individual playing with make-believe toy machines. From his awkward miming of cutting Lee’s breakfast — which ends up being a full and untouched sausage, so why the cutting motions? Moreover, surely this would be too hot for Lee to eat there and then, having just been cooked, but she seems to wolf it down with ease — to the poorly applied stencil, ‘UC3 EDEN’, a painful precursor for the insensitivity to follow, visuals in this performance are much too neglected.
Finally, I must also consider how Lee’s murder is handled. The ‘knife in the armpit’ trick is not sufficient alone to draw the audience away from the artificiality of the movement and into the land of illusion, especially given that this particular technique is most effective when seen from the side, not head-on from an audience that can see the activity clearly from most angles. Imagination is already strained enough, with our being forced to visualise that a pool of blood has now covered the floor and sheathed the knife. It was an intelligent decision not to use retractable knives, however, as these have a habit of failing to retract, and this is dangerous; I would not recommend these. I would recommend richer and broader distractive movement, though; the goal is to distract the audience’s eye with greater ‘decoy’ movements so that imagination might fill in the blanks once we see Lee falling slowly to the ground. Perhaps even as he forces her into a kiss, he could lift his hand behind her shirt, out of our view, and in this way stab her from behind, with the knife concealed by her clothing. Depending on how intense this scene should be — I imagine melodrama would not be amiss here, given the caricatural work that follows — a stroboscope or pulsing spot, or, my personal favourite, simple darkness with auditory cues, can then aid the repetitive madman stabbing that ensues. Otherwise, beyond her breathing that remains far too harsh and conspicuous — further concealing techniques required here: a constantly puffed chest and solid core will help this — Hill portrays Lee’s death and limpid body very well, indeed. I would just take extra care to make sure she slumps her head to the centre of her chest; she currently slumps it to the side whilst sitting on the chair, which would inevitably cause her unresisting body to fall off, if she were actually dead. Ironically, however, it should be noted that this should be taken as advice for the creatives’ future performances, due to this aforementioned extreme bloodthirsty insensitivity.