Brighton Fringe 2017
Half way through ‘Stones’, Rose tells Jasper a story about a species of Indonesian moths, whose habitat is changed by the eruption of a volcano. It’s covered in dust, and so their colouring makes them stand out and become easy prey for birds and other predators. So over a number of generations they adapt, changing to become dust-coloured themselves, and much less conspicuous and vulnerable.
That’s evolution in practice, and it’s the underlying theme of ‘Stones’. How do we adapt to changed circumstances, and will our survival strategies be effective?
At the play’s opening, the lights come up on a man, chained to a column at the left side of the stage. There are two other shorter columns, stumps really, in the middle, and there’s a wooden bucket to the right. Then there’s a thudding slam of a heavy door, and a woman is hurled into the space. She’s clad in a long dress in thin cotton, and a thin grey cardigan, the man is in stained yellow trousers and a loose white cotton shirt. He also has a bag covering his head.
The magic of theatre is a bit like evolution – the chains, the crash of the door all tell us that this is a prison cell, while the actors’ clothing suggests that this is probably the seventeenth century. So as an audience we adapt to that environment very quickly – a few seconds into the play and we have built the rest of the location inside our heads. The woman won’t initially tell the man her first name – “Hardly Proper!” which hinted that they were probably English (how’s that for stereotyping?) but after removing the bag from his head she relents and we learn that they are called Rose and Jasper.
Jasper has been locked in this cell for the last seven months. He’s a prisoner of war, captured in some battle along with his two brothers. Ostensibly the play is timeless, but the details I’ve mentioned suggested the English Civil War to me. We learn that initially there were the three of them in this cell – Jasper himself, Peter his elder brother and Lucius his younger. Now they’ve died, leaving Jasper alone. But what does ‘alone’ really mean?
For Jasper, his brothers still inhabit the cell and he can see and hear them. Thanks to him, we can too, as they argue with him, or replay events from earlier months in the cell when they were still alive. Peter was the true soldier among them, vigorous and unyielding. He can’t come to terms with his loss of freedom and fairly quickly starves himself to death. Lucius survived longer; he was full of hope that they would be liberated, and only died of heartbreak when that unrealistic vision began to fade. It’s Jasper who seems to have adapted best. He’s overcome the crushing solitude by conjuring up these companions. Peter and Lucius are mostly hidden in the wings, and only come onstage when Jasper sees them.
Rose of course cannot see them at all initially. She seems like a beam of sanity into this murky madhouse, and there are some funny exchanges where she thinks Jasper’s addressing her when in fact he’s replying to one of his brothers. At first Rose is very optimistic, confident that she will be able to adapt to her new circumstances. As time passes, though, she changes in more worrying ways – she becomes obsessed with the ants that forage across the cell floor. By controlling and guiding their movements she feels able to be in a position of control, on some higher level, stepping outside her actual dimension of containment – she’s built a cell within a cell. Later still she begins to be able to see Jasper’s brothers for herself. By the end she’s talking to them as well.
Jasper discovers that Rose isn’t a prisoner-of-war like himself; he sees her committal papers to an asylum – so is she really mad? Is it an adaptation to her situation, or has she been insane from the start? But as she says in response – “We’re all mad, but some of us have it in writing”.
Adaptation. Rose calls it ‘institutionalisation’ at one point. When release finally comes and the outside world beckons (but you’ll have to go and see the play to find out how) the open cell door manages to appear simultaneously tantalising and forbidding. I wasn’t sure whether they would finally leave, or choose to stay inside.
I mentioned the ‘magic of theatre’ at the beginning. We suspend disbelief in the obvious artificiality of the stage setting, in order to believe in the story itself. But that can only work if the creation itself is strong enough. Katy Matthews’ writing and Judey Bignell’s very confident direction allowed that prison cell to exist in front of us for over an hour. Rose and Jasper were there for much longer, of course, and Hannah Baxter’s haunting music carried us through the intervening weeks between scenes. That cell is still hanging in my memory as I write this.
Actors have to bring the creation to life. Chris Gates as Jasper portrayed the frustration and anguish of incarceration vividly, while still managing flashes of humour in his interactions with Rose. Rose; who was played sympathetically by Emma Howarth. She managed the transition from prim ice-maiden to muddied obsessive very believably. There was a lot of emotional ambiguity in her dealings with Peter. Here we had a visceral performance from Trefor Levins. His costume included a tattered soldier’s jacket, but we didn’t need that to experience the rage and frustration of the caged man-of-action. John Black, by contrast, gave us a Lucius who was much more a mother’s boy – not a baby or a coward but a man desperate to do the best for his family. I believed in them all.
Finally – I’m always fascinated by the names writers choose for their characters. Think about these ones. Jasper is a crystalline form of quartz, a gemstone. A stone, like the title of the play. Peter is another stone, a rock, petros, in his case, hard and unyielding. Lucius, the younger brother, is full of hope and optimism for the future. His name means ‘light’, of course. As for Rose – She was wilful but married to please her family. Outspoken enough, in a pre-feminist age, to be incarcerated in an asylum. Now she’s insane, or is she? She has adapted so that she can see Jasper’s brothers. Truly – ‘A Rose, by any other name, would smell as … mad?’