Brighton Fringe 2015
S P O I L E R A L E R T
This review probably contains spoilers. If this is a problem, please stop reading NOW. You can see my policy at www.stratmastoris.wordpress.com/spoilers
It also contains a riddle –
‘Alive without breath, as cold as death.
Thinks a lake is a mountain.
Thinks a fountain is a puff of air.
So sleek, so fair’
It’s a fish. The riddle from Tolkein’s ‘the Hobbit’
In English – and in French, of course – we have writers like Samuel Beckett to bring us face-to-face with the bleakness and the ultimate meaninglessness of the human condition. But here in Britain we don’t know very much about the intellectual life of countries in Eastern Europe, so it’s a real revelation to see a production of a work by a Romanian writer, Marin Sorescu.
Sorescu died in 1996, after the fall of Ceauşescu, but he published ‘Thirst Of The Salt Mountain’ in 1985, under the strictures of the old Communist regime, which meant that irony and allusion had to take the place of overt criticism of society. The work is actually three plays – ‘Jonah’, ‘The Verger’ and ‘The Matrix’ – published together and intended to be performed as one.
And it’s an astonishing piece of work. As we entered the cavernous space at Emporium, with its peeling paintwork and high roof disappearing up into darkness, we were confronted with some simple stage items; chairs, a table and a set of steps, all in white, and in the centre an enormous length of plastic sheeting, hanging suspended from the lighting rig like a great translucent curtain.
Three people were in the acting space – two women dressed all in white, with whitened faces, and a man, in white sea-boots and trousers and a fisherman’s smock and a woolly hat that looked like they were completely salt-encrusted. One of the women sat at a table, with a laptop, operating sound and audio-visuals, projecting video onto the back wall to help locate many scenes. Here we watched ripples on the surface of the sea.
The man was Jonah, and he’s out fishing, to feed his family, with a small goldfish bowl (complete with fish) at his feet, and the intermittent sound of thunder in the background. He’s fishing because he’s hungry, but he told us that if there are no fish he goes home and fishes from the bowl – "They’ve been caught before, so they’re cautious, but in the end one always bites … you can’t fight hunger".
What a vivid – and awful – image of being trapped in a situation you can’t control. The fish and the man. Outside the goldfish bowl, the man is alone. Alone on the surface of the sea. Conor Baum has a remarkably expressive face and a very mobile body, his arms and hands constantly moving to convey a thought or demonstrate a point. He calls out – "Help! Help! God!". Silence. "If only there was an echo …" Soon he was swallowed by the Whale.
Squall + Frenzy are a hugely inventive theatre company, and they produce very powerful imagery – I saw ‘Fragments of a Fallen City’ last year (there’s a review on Fringe Review) where they turned the basement rooms of a Brighton pub into the wreckage of Troy, sacked and looted after the Greek victory. At Emporium they had this enormous plastic curtain, and Jonah wrapped himself inside it as it hung, the almost-transparent material shimmering in an overhead spotlight, letting us see his distorted features through what looked like the stomach membranes of the Whale. There were wonderful dripping and sloshing noises which set the location vividly – these were produced by Ada Dodds, sitting at the sound table and doing a lot of them vocally into a microphone.
The Biblical Jonah is inside the Whale so that God can prove that He will look after him. The play’s Whale might symbolise Romanian society under Communism, but this reviewer thought that Sorescu is also getting at something much more Existential in the human condition. Jonah eventually cuts himself out of the Whale’s belly, only to find that it has been eaten by a bigger Whale. He tears some holes – "where there are no windows, they must be invented, with nails, human nails. I am a nail" – and he climbs the stepladder to look out.
"What can you see? … The horizon … And beyond that? … Another horizon"
"And what is that horizon? … A giant fish’s belly"
This is where we find ourselves, trapped inside a universe we can’t comprehend, and we try to make sense of our situation by scientific investigation – windows must be invented. But as we extend our understanding with our theories and our instruments – our telescopes and our particle accelerators – the ultimate meaning of our existence recedes away from us, discovery by discovery – horizon by horizon.
Standing on a stepladder, peering out to try to discern some meaning – this is a central image from Beckett’s ‘Endgame’, which co-incidentally I had seen performed last year in this same Emporium space. In that play it’s Clov on the ladder – Clov which translates as ‘nail’ (to Hamm’s ‘hammer‘). I wonder if Marin Sorescu had made the connection? – I’m sure he was familiar with Beckett’s work.
Trying to make sense of existence. When it can’t be done with science we fall back on older comforts – "That is all that we humans want, to hear that sacred story of Resurrection. We hear it – we feel divine – and then we go home to die. Mortal"
In ‘The Verger’, Isabel Sensier is building herself a cathedral. Literally brick by brick – white bricks laid out in a line across the front of the acting space, like stepping stones. She’s building a religion, too, it seems, lighting a big red candle that she keeps blowing out and relighting. Again Beckett came to mind – "Try … Fail … Try again … Fail again. Fail better"
It’s the Forgotten Cathedral – "People were so exhausted by its construction that they went off cathedrals. This is the last one. And I am the Last Verger".
Sentier has a very impressive vocal and emotional range. She seems torn between defeat – "We delude ourselves because we can" – and renewed outbursts of passionate belief – "See, the flame is full of grace … I will create a Cathedral of Grace“. She can do anguish too – "Forgive me! – forgive my doubt"
A Brighton Fringe audience would probably hear all this as being about the decline of religion in an increasingly secular society. In Sorescu’s Romania, though, it must have sounded like the disillusion with the realities of Communism – that other religion which failed to deliver its promised Paradise. No wonder the author was very popular in Bucharest.
After the interval, we returned to a stage set that could have been created by Brecht himself. In a wooden chair on the right, a peasant woman was about to give birth, hands clasping her enormously swollen belly as she groaned and strained. In a similar chair on the left, an old man in a nightshirt (Baum) was groaning too – he was about to die. And in the middle, taking up the space between the two chairs, was a bed – a wooden structure made up of two white-painted pallets that had been used in the Cathedral scene earlier – but very recognisably a bed.
Ada Dodds wore a white headscarf and a grey shift for this ‘Matrix’ section – she’d swapped places with Isabel Sensier on the sound table. Dodds is not only a very convincing actor – her birth-pangs made me wince – but she’s the translator of Sorescu’s Romanian text.
The setting was breathtaking in its simplicity – the whole sequence of life stages set out in front of us – the pain of Birth, the passion and sensuality of Sex, and at the end the pain, again, of Death. The old man is the woman’s father, and although his daughter’s in great distress all he’s interested in is getting someone to hear his deathbed confession.
"I’m dying!" she screams. "No you’re not", her father retorts. "Your grandmother, she gave birth on her way to take food to workmen in the field. She came back home with the baby in a basket, tucked in with the spoons. It only took her a moment, in a bush, by the cows – that’s how she was able to have fourteen children". Sorescu might be an existentialist, but he can do humour, too!
Finally the old man died, and his daughter gave birth – to a strange red baby. A jointed puppet like an artist’s lay-figure with a large head, which she held and cuddled. Was the colour significant? Did it somehow symbolise the Party, born out of the labours of the Proletariat? Or maybe the Ideal Romanian Communist Comrade? I had to remember that we were watching a thirty-year-old play set in a very different society. There was also the possibility that the colour was a Squall + Frenzy design choice, though – in each part they‘d managed to insert just a single red item into the otherwise monochrome set.
They managed a ghost, too. Suddenly there was loud knocking on the door, and a truly terrifying figure entered. A three-headed creature seemingly floating just off the ground. Snake heads, and three different voices sounding slightly sibilant tones – hissing and rather echoey.
They (it?) seem to be interested in both the dead man and the newborn infant. Three voices intoned – "We came", "We kept vigil", "We cast our spells". One of them kept getting her spells wrong – obviously not very bright – and while I had originally seen them as witch-like, or Furies, I think they are meant to symbolise the many-headed hydra that was the Securitate state secret police. Watching over Romanian comrades from birth to death …
But the waters are rising – another Great Flood is on its way. They had laid the huge plastic sheet across the front of the stage, and now Baum and Sensier held an end each and raised it, glistening like an incoming tide in the overhead light, higher and higher – forcing Ada Dodds and the red baby to take refuge on top of the stepladder. As the sea finally rose above her head she held the baby high above the water and her last words told us that – "I can hear the boats of the ones who are coming to save us!".
Boats saving people. Great theatre is timeless, and seeing this image, in a month when refugees from the Third World are being plucked from the Mediterranean, brought home the vast inequalities in the human existence. The difference between our comfort and security and the human beings we choose to demonise as ‘immigrants’.
Then … nothing. The actors left the stage, the lights came up and we applauded enthusiastically, and … nothing. No-one came back on. No-one took a bow.
There was no-one there!
I don’t know whether that’s in Sorescu’s script, or whether it’s another part of Squall + Frenzy’s hugely imaginative staging, but it was a perfect ending – unsettling and disturbing – summing up visually what this whole existential piece had been about.
There is no-one there.
We are alone.