Brighton Fringe 2011
Sunday Morning at The Centre of The World is acclaimed author Louis de Bernieres’ first and only play to date, written back in 1999: described by him as “a play for voices”; his own Under Milk Wood; his homage to the neighbours and community he knew during the years he lived in South London, before moving to Norfolk. It was originally produced as a radio play, broadcast by BBC Radio Three, and then staged at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Bad Physics theatre company have now produced this work as a wonderfully energetic stage play; using sound, smell, touch and vision to further breathe into and bring this beautiful piece to life. So this production is not only a moving and engaging audio experience, but also a truly joyful and uplifting multi-sensory experience – where our ears, nostrils, skin and eyes are treated to a feast of real life – played out exuberantly, right in front of us.
Just before the audience members enter the performance space, each are invited to don a blindfold, and the fearless are led expertly to their seat. I was immediately reminded of some kind of drama school trust-building exercise (bad memories…), but my trust was well placed. I’m so glad I agreed to wear that blindfold.
I hate to spoil the surprises in store for you, but as soon as I sat down, my senses were assaulted with the sound of early morning birdsong, with the breeze coming through an open window, with the feel of a fluffy fresh towel, the smell of hot coffee, and the sound of brushing teeth right by my ear; as though all these things were really happening to me. Genius. Right away, I was excited.
Twenty minutes or so into the play, my curiosity got the better of me and I unveiled my eyes. And I was just as glad that I did so as I was glad that I had begun the experience blindfolded. My eyes were met with the sight of a very busy stage. A very ‘working’ space. Reminding me of a Brechtian notion that the work of the actors ought to be shown, not hidden. No illusions, no artifice. Just the very simple nuts and bolts of the actors’ working tools; with the story being crafted, tool by tool, in front of us.
On first seeing the space, it was strewn about with various seeming detritus: water bottles, slippers, shoes, tea cups, cartons of food, old rubbish and goodness knows what else. I couldn’t help admiring the actors’ cavalier attitude towards the usually reverent ground of the performance space. This was just a working space; smoke, mirrors and artifice were not needed. They’d left all their stuff lying about! They hadn’t bothered to tidy up after rehearsals perhaps, nor to clear away all their own personal affairs! But of course this wasn’t it at all. Every single item was a tool. A prop. To make noise. To brush up against the audience with. To create a sound, or smell. I want all actors to work this way from now on. And why not? Ought not theatre today be the ultimate antidote to TV and cinema? Don’t we live enough on a diet of special affects and trickery?
As you would expect from one our greatest living authors of contemporary fiction, the writing is beautifully crafted; De Bernieres’ musicality (he plays many musical instruments, including the eponymous mandolin) and sense of metre, rhythm and cadence shows in this play. De Bernieres has created a genuinely evocative, if wordy, script: featuring soaring literary harmonies; moving interwoven stories; such authentic characters; and several moments of real wit and insight.
Surrounding and pinning together the vignettes of dramatic dialogue, the script is a sort of long narrative poem: lyrical, descriptive and romantic. The script walks the line between drama and poetry with ease, and the piece proves an excellent showcase for the eight athletic and talented young actors who bring its narratives to life in a truly ensemble piece of work. The literary excellence of the author spills out into the space: enhanced and complemented to such a great effect by the excellent acting and ingenious dramatic devices. Who knew how much (legal) joy could come on a night out from the inside of so many Tupperware boxes?
The small performance space of The Marlborough thankfully needs no amplification, and absolutely every word of the script was clearly articulated and heard. The somewhat problematic, tiny proscenium arch dominated space is used really well: the audience are seated in-the-round, and the actors use both the raised stage level as well as the bigger, lower floor space. What a shame though that The Marlborough Theatre gets so inhumanely hot. The audience could surely not have borne to sit through an hour of that heat if the performance had not been so good. The Marlborough so need to get some air-conditioning sorted out. The actors were sweating buckets by the end of the show. I was nearly on the blower to the RSPCA (Royal Society of Protection against Cruelty to Actors – haven’t you heard of it, no?).
Despite the heat, the performance was soulful, energetic and alive. The lighting was subtle, unobtrusive, and utterly effective. The actors wore their own clothes, and the odd piece of costume or prop was used to pay lip service to the characterisations. It was an extremely pacey, slick performance; rehearsed, no-doubt, within an inch of its life.
On a personal note: This show smells like the very essence of what fringe theatre ought to be: evocative and refreshing, but at the end of the play I confess I was left wondering what on earth it was all ‘about’… I also confess I don’t think this matters one bit. Perhaps some visceral meaning seeped into me somewhere, without my intellect being aware: in through my nostrils, through my ears, through my skin, and into my very soul.
Perhaps it was simply about life. Life as the author saw it at the time. And perhaps the meaning for us in the audience has something to do with life too; and the fact that we are all just trying to live it, and figure out what it means to be alive. The smells and sounds and sensations all add to this sense of life. Of being truly alive. Wow, I love it when a piece of theatre makes me feel that way.