Edinburgh Fringe 2017
‘Anathema. (n). ‘Someone or something that one vehemently dislikes.’ Jamie was raped at a New Year’s Eve party, but it has taken him a month to tell anyone. Whilst his friends struggle to accept the truth, Jamie reflects on what occurred since he moved to university and the events that led up to his rape. This tragic story tackles the typically taboo subjects of male rape and rape culture through the eyes of a group of students. (EdFringe website.)’
Anathema is an involving and powerful new play by Niall Kiely, performed capably by a cast of seven from Drama St. Mary’s. They create a stage dynamic uncannily proximitous to real student life, which makes the issues the play interrogates all the more hard-hitting and urgent. Well-structured and thoughtfully directed, Anathema is a must-see. It is evidently a student production, but it is saying something very important loudly and clearly, without needless decoration; and that makes it more than worth engaging with.
For the most part, the text is observant and clean, but some of the expositional writing in the first ten minutes of the production did not allow for space for the audience to insinuate finer details about characters. But, nonetheless, nothing overshadowed the reveal of the perpetrator, and the cleverness with which this was structured for maximum impact. In terms of emphasising the issues at the core of Anathema and addressing the stigmas surrounding homosexuality and consent, the play was never heavy-handed. Anathema begins with Jamie, Niall Kiely, telling his two friends and housemates, Riley (Megan Bailes) and Sophie (Clara Home), that he has been raped. We move between the past and the present, travelling back to Freshers’ week when the group of students on which Anathema focuses first meet in university halls, and tracing their lives through into second year, when Jamie moves in with his two female friends. This structural decision allowed for a slow and considered build-up of information through the different characters, building suspense effectively and powerfully.
All the cast delivered strong performances. They struck the right note between being unsure undergraduates, trying both to make their mark and to not stand out too much, and hinting at their characters’ complexities. The script relied on personality stereotypes, but rather than being a weakness, this was an acute, fly-on-the wall truth about how young people struggle to strike the balance between being true to themselves and seeking acceptance. The cast coped with the occasional lack of subtlety in their characters’ words by inhabiting their roles completely. An early group scene was particularly strongly realised and performed, when everyone gathers to play a drinking game. It was cringey, it was awkward, and it was spot on, perfectly capturing what it’s like when opposing personalities find themselves thrown together by nothing more than circumstance. Occasional overacting can be forgiven: ultimately, I was invested in these people and this story, and the young company gelled onstage and were compellingly watchable.
Technically, Anathema was competent and sometimes slick. The set was simple and used with variety. Music choices, the club tunes especially, effectively juxtaposed divergent tones, and worked well as scene transitions. Background noise at the New Year’s Eve Party helped create a sense of place, but the choice to underlay Rob’s monologue (played by Angus Woodward) – addressing Jamie after he has fled a conversation – with music was a little crass. More trust could have been put in the text here. Transitional noises, like a door slam when Jamie leaves the room, for example, and a real knock (rather than a recorded one) on a door, would have helped indicate changes of place more clearly.
The final scene is the precursor to the rape – the event itself is not enacted, a sensitive decision. A short speech from the director, Ross Sterne, in which he explained that the company had decided bows would be inappropriate for such a serious subject matter, but that he and other members of the team would be around after the show to speak to about any issues raised, indicated the attention and compassion of all involved in this project. The Bearded Dog have ‘the aim of producing new work that tells the stories other theatre is afraid to tell.’ Anathema is exactly what theatre should be doing.