Saturday, 12 November 2011

When The Door is Knocked On, Open It - The Possibilities

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed below are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the company. As with all my insider reviews, call me biased if you want, but I wouldn't write about a show I'm working on if I didn't enjoy it.

The Possibilities by Howard Barker is a pretty heavy going and heavy handed piece of writing. Goodness knows when I was first given the script during the 2011 Drama Studio London Graduate Season, when this production was first developed, I was not impressed. In my mind it was preachy, self-righteous and I was not looking forward to working on it.

And I know I wasn't the only one. It took the company quite a while to find a way into the text, a series of 10 short plays that I saw little connection between other than presenting how vile humans can be to one another.

Courtesy of James Oaten
So you can imagine my relief when in the technical rehearsal at the Camden People's Theatre, I found myself amused and intrigued by what this group of nine actors were showing me.

Barker doesn't do light-hearted. His work is known as Theatre of Catastrophe, exploring the darkest depths of human motivation, violence, sexuality and the hunger for power. No wonder we had to put an audience age-restriction on this production.
The author strives to provoke differing responses in the audience; in one scene you may sympathise with one character while the person sitting next to you will sympathise with another. In a number of the plays in this production it is not entirely clear cut who is in the right and who's in the wrong. Though not necessarily balanced, arguments are presented from both sides, which hopefully will leave the audience asking questions.

Courtesy of James Oaten
The chief example of this is the play She Sees The Argument But...(affectionately dubbed Space Nuns by the company) in which a futuristic society is attempting to negate public sexual expression in order to reduce crime.
When this production of The Possibilities was first presented it coincided with Slutwalk London, a protest against the attitude of some establishments that if a woman dresses in a certain way, she's inviting abusive behaviour from men. 
While you can see where their argument is coming from, is it a woman's problem if a man can't control his urges?

Howard Barker writes "We must overcome the urge to do things in unison". I'll admit when I read that quote while gathering research for this post, I had to laugh, as Matthew Parker and the company have completely smacked that idea out of the venue. The main theme of the links between the plays is unity, fighting against oppression, whatever it's form.

Courtesy of James Oaten
Each of the nine actors, when not in one of the plays, presents a character based on an activist or radical thinker. Olivia Onyehara's character Maya is based on Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Panther's Party and Black Liberation Army in the 1970s. Max, played by Phil Bishop is based on Voltaire, and Robert Sladden's Jan is based on Jan Opletal, an 18 year-old who was one of the leading members of the peaceful protests against the Nazis before he was shot at a demonstration.

Between plays the nine activists work together to set-up the next scene and ground their fellows who took part in the last. The sense of camaraderie and united intent is enhanced with provocative music from PJ Harvey, Regina Spektor, Muse and Black Hawk Down and choreography from Parker based on the pressure positions that prisoners of war are forced to maintain for hours.

Courtesy of James Oaten
As I've said, this show is not light-hearted. It is a dark and disturbing piece of theatre, but despite that the company doesn't smother the occasional dark humour that crops up throughout. In Unforeseen Consequences Of A Patriotic Act Nina Moniri presents us with the occasionally gormless but protective and opinionated servant who accompanied Judith when she executed Holofernes. Phil Bishop's eccentric book seller in Only Some Can Take The Strain has proven to be an audience favourite, and the lieutenant of the battery played by Jonathan Butler in The Philosophical Lieutenant And The Three Village Women is such a smug git you can't help wanting to hit him in the face.

I have nothing but admiration for the cast of The Possibilities. This has been a great opportunity for them to show off their acting range. Each actor plays main characters, extras and activists, all with the same level of dedication and conviction and I love having a quick glance around the playing space during each play to see what everyone else onstage is doing.

The fantastic physicality and vivid visual element is a credit to Matthew Parker's directing style, and Simeon Miller's dark, and sometimes understated, lighting design is a perfect compliment to it.

Courtesy of James Oaten
The Possibilities is a bold choice as a first show for Red Line Productions, the company started by Nina Moniri upon her graduation from Drama Studio London this summer. Moniri hasn't given herself an easy ride with this show, featuring in 7 of the 10 plays as she was cast in the graduate season and learning what it takes to be a producer, so much praise goes to her for the success of this show. I look forward to seeing where Red Line Productions goes next.

At the end of the day, anyone involved in the theatre industry knows that the appeal of a show and its message can be highly subjective. While studying theatre at Dartington College of Arts, the major thing I learned was that if you can't engage with the meaning of the show then just sit back and enjoy it for the theatricality of it.
The political activism element of this show never greatly appealed to me, but what bought me back when the show transferred to the Tristan Bates Theatre was the cast's performances and the fact it's a great show. With nearly 200 lighting and sound cues it's one of the most challenging shows I've ever had to operate, but I love it, and I encourage anyone who wants to see a great piece of theatre, that's not mainstream, to get down to Covent Garden to see The Possibilities before the end of it's run.

Courtesy of James Oaten
The Possibilities is playing until 19/11/11 at the Tristan Bates Theatre, London.
Tickets can be booked here. [The Tristan Bates online booking system has been experiencing some difficulties in the last few days. If you have trouble booking tickets please call the box office.]