FringeReview UK 2018
Arnim Friess’s lighting plays or shuts down on Daisy Blower’s equally black-and-white squared-off set. Dinah Mullen’s sounds often deployed to scatalogical or otherwise explosive effects. Jeremy Warmsley’s music wafts in descending figures as if we’re in a Chapel of Rest, as Adam Gerber sculpts its effects. Depi Gorgogianni’s movement direction is key to this tightly-controlled stage.
1918 has brought new and luckily revived plays rounding out the First World War and modern memory. There aren’t many though from any period to burst forth in verse.
Square Rounds makes for a linguistically and informationally packed evening, delivered by the six sparkling women actors of Proud Haddock whose tumultuous energy reminds one of Yellow Earth’s memorable Tamburlaine at the Arcola last year.
Jimmy Walters and Finborough Theatre have form with Tony Harrison, mounting his The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus last year. The slightly later Square Rounds of 1992 has never been revived before. It’s easy to see why: it’s verse-packed and breathless, but dizzyingly busy with info as various chemists troop on and off in couplets.
Harrison’s own plays – as opposed to his adaptations – contrast with the confiding tone of much of his poetry. They’re impersonal and declamatory to the audience, didactic in a Brechtian vein, armoured,. But there’s often a heart and here it lies in the relationship of husband-and-wife chemists Clara Immerwahr and Fritz Haber, mired in ethics as solders are mired in mud; Haber wants to stop it.
Square rounds themselves are a glance-off here, designed to kill Muslims in the 18th century by one James Puckle. Harrison’s theme is more subtle: how idealistic chemists trying to improve the human condition, produce waste products that exterminate it. Justus von Liebig (the top-hat cabaret-inducing Eva Feiler) cites the destruction of human waste by the British toilet, (‘England’s green and pleasant land will be laid bare,/Because of the contraption inside that cabin there’) and the British replacement with bones of anyone who’s not north European. He develops nitrogen-based fertiliser. TNT is one result.
Sir William Crookes (Rujenne Green) develops this with a very active display of thallium and helium – gleefully too, like a typically boyish Victorian enthusiast. The Maxim brothers Amy Marchant as Hudson and Letty Thomas as Hiram, try to end war with the machine-gun and Hudson more pragmatically with smokeless gunpowder.
Thomas’ roles as Hiram and sweeper both require wheezing and as a man superannuated and a man supplanted by larger horrors she produces an avuncular virtuosity. Marchant’s more pragmatically assure Hudson – who’s determined to bring his original native country (Hiram was knighted as a naturalised Briton) into the war, is handled with a truculent contrast; Marchant’s brother is the shrewder.
Hiram also produces the first chest inhaler not ironically termed ‘pipe of peace’ – of enormous help to Thomas’ engaging first character onstage, the wheezing sweep of the 1915 munitions factory, about to be populated with a monstrous regiment of ‘munitionettes’. And it’s of course of some help very soon to sufferers of the next war-ending wheezes, gas-sufferers (we get a visceral image of five soldiers blinded by gas leading each other mutely across the stage, backlit by period footage). It’s the Habers though that takes us to a dark heart of paradoxical intent.
Arnim Friess’s lighting plays or shuts down on Daisy Blower’s equally black-and-white squared-off set; which boasts a Maxim gun in each colour with a central revolving magic cabinet-cum-toilet (Dinah Mullen’s sounds often deployed to voluble farts and defecation, a Harrison given) which turns into a rear – as it were – of blackboard science lessons. It often disgorges time-travelling chemists too. Turdis anyone?
If that’s monochromatic there’s streamers of silk extolling the virtue of Germany’s world-beating colour-dyes and its later offshoot, greeny-streamered chlorine gas. Jeremy Warmsley’s music wafts in descending figures as if we’re in a Chapel of Rest, as Adam Gerber sculpts its effects to fill the diminutive theatre like a vast Escorial. Depi Gorgogianni’s movement direction is key to this tightly-controlled ballet-on-a-sixpence stage.
There’s a further paradox too, several chemists are Jewish and there’s of course a horrific payoff for Haber, ‘father of chemical warfare’ developing poison gas out of the nitrogen he’s intended before the war as a benefit. ‘I had the noble dream of making Europe green,/I never intended it for trinitrotoluene.’ That’s TNT.
Gracy Goldman as Clara Immerwahr remains agonized in her gradual realisation of the horror about to be unleashed. It’s a finely gradated withering of the soul, rather like being poisoned in fact. A chemist who gave up work for her husband, she sees before he does the application’s real effects. And that her husband’s being pressured as a last resort, since the anti-Semitic Kaiser wouldn’t otherwise employ a Jew, and he won’t employ a second, the one who develops gasmask, so the first gas attack counts for nothing. But it’s the ethics Immerwahr can’t countenance, the choking off of life in horrific slow motion. Haber counters with: ‘It’s bad enough to die but once you’ve died,/isn’t it better if your corpse can be identified?’
Philippa Quinn as Fritz Haber produces a nuanced shift from confident patrician to agonized recanter when he realizes what’s going to happen far nearer home. It’s the performance of the evening, delivered with brio and heartbreak.
At the end we’re lectured by a group of Chinese citizens with projections to match, recalling the munitions workers in their quiet resignation – but here delivering the metaphor. That the first missiles were doves whose feet were set alight so they’d fly up to roofs and fire these in turn, perishing first themselves. Separating the dove’s feet from the fire is Harrison’s metaphor. He might have let us settle more quietly on a few more.
There are several times where Harrison repeats himself, and it’s not his most immediately appealing work simply because his yammering machine-gun elements crowd out his poetry. The verse brio, literally every variation on satire and irony, is visited s the er occasionally tires. It might be slightly edited because there’s an enormous amount here and if you can tune into the didactic cabaret – and this production allows that perhaps more than the original – then it’s an event worth savouring. It won’t come often and that’s an enormous pity.
As it is Proud Haddock have delivered their own stamp on Harrison’s verse-play, and it’s mostly thrilling.