FringeReview UK 2019
The Directors’ Festival 2019 is the third organized by Orange Tree Theatre with St Mary’s University, Twickenham. It features four plays, Tiego Rodrigues’ Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes, Elinor Cook’s Pilgrims, Josh Azouz’s The Mikvah Project and Declan Greene’s Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, The director here for the Cook is Ellie Goodall. All designs are by Cory Shipp, lit by Chris McDonnell with sound design by Lex Kosanke. Till August 11th.
A woman is begging her lover to get off the mountain and leave his friend who’s past help. ‘You could take his jacket… He doesn’t need it.’ Ruthlessly clear-headed she has history with them both. But why is the woman always left behind, always called Nancy, waving from the quay? Not this time: she’s Rachel and isn’t having it.
With Elinor Cook you expect something special like Out of Love, which transferred to the Orange Tree last year. Usually it’s a three-hander, and Cook’s distinctive voice, short exchanges with brief litanies of verse-phrased monologues, features economies of words and narrative often starting near the end then darting everywhere for 75 minutes. So it proves here. The Directors’ Festival 2019 is back – the third organized by Orange Tree Theatre with St Mary’s University.
Pilgrims from 2016 (HighTide/Theatr Clwyd/The Yard) carries its Welsh beginnings in Nicholas Armfield’s Alpha-extroverted Will and to an extent Luke McGregor’s darker, more inward Dan, the classic combo, winingly realised by both. And at 18 they’ve scaled Everest, it was in the papers (‘all’ says Will, ‘some’ says Dan). But it’s fixed them there. As their twenties wear on and their bodies wear too, can they get off the mountainside they’ve created for themselves?
It’s skewed though by the woman who falls for Will first: ‘I’m going to kiss you for a very, very long time’ and they do, like a fable. Then it’s the more thoughtful, introverted though utilitarian Dan when she meets them at a student pub in their early twenties. It takes the whole scene to learn the woman’s name and she has to volunteer it. ‘I’m Rachel by the way.’
Ellie Goodall directs. All designs are by Cory Shipp, mainly light wooden frames serving as parapets, portables and part of a mountain pass. There’s the paraphernalia of climbing and the eternal scruffage of twenty-something men and PhD students. It’s lit by Chris McDonnell with sound design by Lex Kosanke haunting with mountain winds at intervals that cut to the ice of the play.
Cook’s narrator and ultimately shaper is Adeyinka Akinrinade’s Rachel, an ambitious PhD whose own myth-kitty of subjects which starts by taking in ‘Caucasian’ climbers: ‘you just want to stick flags on virgin territory’. That’s as well as Tam Linn, folklore and the just-so-ness of fables. Particularly Tam Linn which includes rape of the heroine Janet. Yet Dan wants to be rescued. Anyone who’s tackled a PhD knows Cook’s setting up Rachel to question her own vastness: it’s a fuzzy PhD that might lapse under its own weight. There’s irony in setting up a grand inquisitor who falls for climbers appropriating virgin territory. Cook loads Rachel with all the outrage but edges her with a wrong decision, an intellectual arrogance.
Akinrinade’s performance combines that with shafts of tender regard, a conscious dwindling into wife-mode though not married, and a spirited, sometimes angry reassertion. Hers is the most layered, rewarding role of all (and neither men are ciphers). Though not a character-driven play, the antimonies of unexamined male ambition and female agency score like characters for a work of this length.
Will lives up to his name but again it’s not all one-side. It’s Will who bullies Dan off the mountain by emptying their water, knowing they face certain death. It’s Will too dismayed at Rachel’s inability to respond to views ‘It’s beautiful’ but his Will-full ’I’m going to make you have a brilliant time’ is the essential man. as to Rachel’s sense of adventure, Cook ‘I just want to indulge it… back at the hotel.’ To invert a conventional sexual trope it’s Rachel who’s explicit with both men, pleading for something similar with Dan.
Dan presents other male problems, including the need to vanish for days, clearly disturbed, signalling low-level mental distress. When he returns Rachel’s myths spill over, she’s not Odysseus’ Penelope she says yet bathes Dan’s feet explicitly like Martha. But does something that makes the audience wince audibly; though they should have been prepared.
Yet it’s Dan and Rachel who explicitly make sacrifices: her Harvard PhD, his trip with Will to Peru, whilst the men have become estranged. Or do they either tell each other or make such gestures? Cook explores latterly (as we get the chronology, mostly linear with verbally signposted switchbacks) it’s with this couple that the unspoken’s given false memory as uttered, that the narrative bites itself with versions. Another kind of language. Not gaslighting, but the slipperiness of storytelling. As if the PhD’s trying to finish itself by other means.
There’s a volte-face as we turn full-circle having mapped the cramphorns this far. That St Christopher Rachel gave Dan doesn’t mean enough, perhaps, ‘just tin’. There’s always Nancy waving goodbye – points Rachel raised at the beginning (the first production had a videolink, this relies on imaginary conversation). Whist more ambitious than Cook’s later Out of Love, the end a ‘yes’ moment might feel a little contrived, whereas the alter play has a sweet-point rightness. But it’s satisfying in retrospect, and even more so studied as a text. It’s a play that invites radically different staging, and this certainly differs from the original production and lets Pilgrims breathe a hauntingly thinner air, nearer the text’s and Rachel’s utterance of myth.
George Devine Award-winning (2013), and Susan Smith Blackburn finalist (for Out of Love) Cook took a scandalous while to get produced, but she’s establishing herself now as one of the most recognizable talents of her generation. Cook’s always worth a diversion for, and this most directly confrontational drama deserves friends and revivals.