Brighton Fringe 2016
Festival: Brighton Fringe
‘They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.’
‘The Marked’ is a show about how childhood traumas persist into adulthood, as personal demons that we find it incredibly hard to exorcize.
Jack was only ten when his mother fell victim to alcoholism and her behaviour and her treatment of him changed completely. Now Jack’s twenty, and he’s left an impossible home life to become a rootless drifter on the streets of London.
We are given Jack’s back-story through a series of childhood memories and flashback images – his mother as ‘The Good Queen’, who’s kind and beautiful, but who then becomes ill and turns into ‘The Evil Witch’. It’s done with puppets and grotesque masks, intensified by clashing music and dramatic lighting.
And what puppets! The Good Queen is clad in a long white hooded robe (we never see her face) while the Evil Witch is a terrifying concoction (worn by a live actor) of matted strips of shredded black plastic and red cloth. She has long, birdlike, black claws, and streams of red and black strips pour out of the eye sockets of her horribly distorted mask face. The overall effect is rather like an explosion in a bin-bag factory, and this is carried over into the set.
It might be the rubbish dumping area of a shopping mall or supermarket – waste bin and wheelie-bin at either side of the stage, backed by a wall of rough boards and a shattered corrugated iron fence, all thrown into relief by harsh bluish lighting. The Evil Witch would sometimes reach into a bin (which belched green light when she opened the lid) and take a gulp out of a green bottle – gin, most likely – before moving towards Jack to attack him.
Having the human actor who plays Jack interact with these monstrous figures makes the points that this is fantasy, set in Jack’s childhood past, and that these monsters chasing him are in fact his own traumatic memories, which have become his personal demons.
The adult-Jack actor sometimes works with a child-Jack puppet, moving the puppet’s limbs and body while the youngster attempts to fight off the Evil Witch. Initially this was confusing, as I thought I was simply seeing a puppeteer moving a model figure. It became apparent, though, that we were actually seeing the adult Jack reliving his past – presumably his childhood battles with his mother.
Because this piece is all about childhood, and its effect on adult life. Later in the play Jack is visited by huge birds. Live actors in wonderful pigeon masks, with long tattered overcoats and more strips of black plastic as feathers. They bring him messages – addressing him as ‘King’ and telling him that it’s time to fight the battle to retrieve his kingdom. How many of us (certainly this reviewer is one) have had these ‘changeling’ fantasies as children? – dreaming that we will eventually be recognised for the important rulers that we really are. It made Jack’s character much more real for me.
Because why in fact did Jack’s mother descend into alcoholism? She obviously wasn’t horrible earlier in Jack’s life. What happened to Jack’s father? Jack must have had one – did he die, or simply leave Jack’s mother? Whatever took place, it had its effect on Jack’s mother and now it’s still taking its toll on him.
He’s become a down-and-out, and as the play progresses the waste ground of the stage set, with its bins and rubbish, is inhabited by a transient population of the homeless, staggering through with ragged coats turned up against the cold or sleeping curled up against the broken walls. It’s here he meets Sophie and Pete – a young homeless couple with a baby on the way – beaten down by who knows what traumas of their own, and teetering on the edge of drug and alcohol addiction.
It seems that the cycle is about to repeat itself. Will Jack be able to escape his fate – can he fight hard enough to overcome the memories of his Evil Witch mother that torment him? For me, the key message was delivered to Jack by one of the birds – “She cannot die if you keep running”.
I must confess to being disappointed with ‘The Marked’. We were told on the way in that this is a work still in progress, and that it will develop, but I had enormously high expectations as I’d seen Theatre Témoin’s production ‘The Fantasist’ at The Warren in 2013. That was a truly awesome show, with a schizophrenic artist surrounded by her hallucinations, which were created by grotesque puppets – some tiny and some enormous and terrifying. Incidentally, ‘The Fantasist’ was wrongly categorised in all the publicity as being bi-polar, a different condition entirely. Theatre Témoin are very interested in subjects like schizophrenia and addiction, and how they affect people’s lives.
‘The Marked’ seemed to me to be trying to cover too many areas at once, with the resulting loss of sharpness and focus to the story. Also, it’s not clear just what age group the production is aimed at – the story was probably too subtle and the puppets too frightening for a very young audience, while those same elements are a bit simplistic and tame for an adult production. The monsters and masks were well done, but they didn’t produce that shudder of terror or awe that ‘The Fantasist’ achieved.
I realise that ‘The Marked’ is a devised production, presumably workshopped with homelessness agencies and others, and that there were a number of script consultants as well. This produces a balanced, comprehensive production, of course, but I wonder whether such an approach ends up underachieving – by trying to achieve too much. But – this is a piece still to be fully developed. It’s still well worth seeing, and knowing what Theatre Témoin have achieved with their other productions; by the time it gets to Edinburgh it could very likely become a truly outstanding show.
The cast of Dorie Kinnear, Tom Stacy and Samuel Fogell were very good – I believed in them as people – and Ailin Conant’s direction kept the movement flowing. The stage was always busy – Zahra Mansouri’s imaginative set allowed plenty of locations for the action to develop. When the cast took bows at the end, we were quite shocked to discover that there were only three of them! But then that’s the magic of theatre.