FringeReview UK 2023
A mind-altering experience, and in writer and director one of the most inspiring partnerships I’ve seen
Directed by Yasmin Sidhwa with Movement choreography/fight and intimacy direction by Marie-Louise Flexen, Spoken Word Artist Kema Daley, Set Design Sophia Lovell Smith, Sound Design gobscure, Lighting Design & Technical Stage Manager Tazi Amey, Producer Ryan Clune, Finance Manager Euton Daley, Filmmaker Ben Johnston, Photographer Stu Allsop.
Till March 18th and touring
Poet and playwright Sean Burn’s one of the most feted outsiders in UK theatre. Award-winning from his Cutter (2004) onwards, he persists in crafting 70-80 minute epics, with a small cast and marvellous touring companies like Mandala, whose artistic director Yasmin Sidhwa also directs Mad(e), a paean to survival and redemption in a world set on marching men to jump off the highest bridge.
Three young men Ash (Lex Stephenson), X.o.dus (Nelvin Kiratu), Kei (Max McMillan Ngwenya) confront each other and their despair. Who though, is Beira (Clarisse Zamba)? You might indeed think Caryl Churchill’s 1995 Skriker, but Beira’s benign. And I was tempted to cross that with Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, currently revived from its Royal Court triumph last year.
But that’s too easy a shorthand. Burn writes not as collating witness of real events and verbatim, but from a life on the inside of this, language torqued to poetry, words annealed to the diamond compression from coal Burn references in Cutter. And as always, his own patronymic serves as wry aching leitmotif.
Mad(e), Burn’s largest-scale work yet, confronts suicidal despair, this time in young men, more directly than in any previous work. In Cutter, a tender relationship between a Trinidadian grandfather and granddaughter (who cuts herself, but also uppercuts as a boxer) offers one of Burn’s dense but clear narratives, brimming with hope against pain. The Collector of Tears a solo time-travelling piece, offers the same storytelling; again its clarity as well as poetry compels.
This time the four-strong cast weave something I’ve never seen in a Burn play. It’s so linguistically dense – and I write as one very familiar with his work – that unless you’re following the text and even then, you’ll blink and miss. It doesn’t matter as you watch, though do acquire the text, coupled with Cutter. This is compelling, a lariat of neologisms, compounds and vaunted metaphors scored through with scabrous contemporary uppercuts to the UK’s hostile environment – some very funny. From the borders to the hospitals, from in-fighting through the occasional compassionate firefighter or public servant bucking their orders, from parental rejection through Beira’s refusal to give up, it’s a 70-minute spell. Burn often at his finest dazzles in depth. There’s passages here that more than touches genius.
Following the narratives of the three men is relatively simple, with choreography (and fight and intimacy direction) by Marie-Louise Flexen allowing each actor to embody their fright. It’s interspersed with ensemble work as the four embody police, each picking on one of their group as outsider, and an exhilarating repeat display of urinal ur-texts – as a trio of ‘Pisstroughers’. Burn’s a stunningly memorable dramatist of poetic theatrical language. Flexen too develops a moment when two actors stand behind two others who lip-synch as those behind orate, push their arms through and wave. The mythic comic and fluxions of toxic masculinity all marry in an instant.
Ash hugs the urn of his friend Saul, whom he egged on to jump off a bridge for a YouTube dare. Now he wants to follow him. Part of the majority demographic, he’s hostile to bisexual Kei, thrown out by his father for coming out, hugging a waterproof coat and bedding, defence against the weather sleeping rough, who learns through a fireman that despair’s not the way and redemption involves working at a foodbank (never simplistically developed, it is a brief moment that might do with a bit more highlighting: again, blink…).
And there‘s X.o.dus. With Zamba doubling as his grandmother he desires to please his father (Ngwenya) by learning his grandmother’s recipes, before fleeing a land torching his community with just a scoop of family earth. The gradations of cooking – the young man with nothing as he lands without documents (Not in Receipt of Public Funds) to the one who provides the most sustenance – is heartwarming. Burn’s knowledge and detail of dishes has this audience salivating (it carried into the Q&A).
The near-disastrous circlings, enactments of early trauma and bullying, as the fluid ensemble take many parts, anneals the three young men, who in Ash embodies the local, frightened of outsiders, acting accordingly: initially homophobic too. Stephenson has the least articulate role to begin with and is rewarded with a superb monologue at the end. It’s a tour-de-force of fight and flinch.
Ngwenya’s supple and balletic Kei is neatly shadowed with rejection and a singular mercurial despair, darting out of range of sympathy and hope, till drawn back in.
Kiratu’s X.do.dus accesses a narrative energy in direct tempo contrast: deliberate, warm, on occasion desolate in his father’s initial rejection, and searingly eloquent, he carves out a language of acceptance in himself, but even so is prepared to pull a knife in a strange land. Burn shows how the most inclusive can be warped by oppression.
Zamba wields the most joyous, freewheeling and disruptive energy. Taking other parts she modulates RP officials through Grandma through to her most constant role as Beira, collator of souls. Ever shape-shifting with a pole, literally weaving Flexen’s choreography round the trio, she compels with a truth that transcends the mythic to Beira’s recognizable persona. Those who don’t feel comfortable with uncompromising poetry in theatre might rob themselves of a mind-altering experience. That said, Burn refuses to eschew what some might feel are kooky moments. Too bad. This audience has no such qualms.
Being a touring production (and set for further tours) Sophia Lovell Smith has managed a small magic of prop and table, boxes, backdrop and a Welsh winter’s horse’s head (wait for that). Burn supplies the sometimes heartrending sound design as ‘gobscure’. Tazi Amey’s lighting works hard and my only caveat is that this play – of all Burn – cries out for a stable environment where its subtleties don’t flash by but are even further elaborated with (perhaps) video and set.
Burn doesn’t work in such environments though this larger production bursts at the seams. Sidhwa’s and Flexen’s direction here has already conjured miracles, and they’ll certainly refine them. In Sidhwa too, Burn has found a long-term collaborator with total belief in and understanding of his work. It’s one of the most inspiring partnerships I’ve seen, and with luck, Sidhwa will encourage Burn to even larger-scale interventions on an environment that cries out for them; like the winter we leave Mad(e) in.