Thursday 14 May 2009

Storming drama

Invisible Storms, Cock Tavern Theatre, London

In an all-black room on top of the Cock Tavern pub, right on Kilburn High Street but the less fashionable side than the one occupied by the Tricycle, Sound Dust is presenting a new play about climate change. Except it is not (only) about climate change, but also about family ties, relationships, guilt, revenge, and political privilege. And it is one of the best surprises of the season.

Devised by director Jamie Harper and playwright Dan Muirden, Invisible Storms sets out to tell the same clear story every night, but without having any of it written down: instead, you’ll be facing a series of improvised tableaux, self-contained scenes (getting quicker and shorter as the performance progresses) that offer glimpses of the characters’ personalities and of their apparently everyday but in fact extraordinary situation, and eventually lead us to the discovery of a twist that still refuses to be the climax of the evening, in favour of some beautifully dramatic scenes that will ensue.

The plot has two strands: a brother and a sister, Cat and Richard, who meet in their childhood coastal home in Norfolk, after their father’s suicide, and discuss how his depression was probably caused by the authorities’ refusal to grant him a seawall to protect his farm from the advancing sea; and a young professional, Conor, who lives off Kilburn High Street and who needs to hire a live-in help for his aging mother, choosing (out of embarrassment and guilt) a Polish woman, Katja, with a two-year-old son. These two strands will come together, in a way that you will not have seen coming, because you will have given in to theatrical conventions that are here only there to trick you. The result is an interesting plot, which discusses a not-so-obvious consequence of climate change and inserts it into the eternal theme of small-people-against-official-power; one of the ideas that you might leave the theatre with is that by the time we finally admit that this is happening and open our eyes to the effects, many injustices will have already been committed, and rules established right under our noses that we might well not like. However, rather than from this, the raw energy and brilliance of the piece, to me, came mainly from the directing and the acting.

The idea of giving actors a basic story and let them work their parts around it whichever way comes best on that specific evening has always been an attractive one, and it is, after all, what commedia dell’arte was all about; last summer, the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill demonstrated what improvisation could bring to a classic, endlessly staged text like Checkov’s Three Sisters, with Chris Goode’s fragmented and post-modern re-interpretation, ...Sisters, in which the actors were only distributed their respective characters once the audience was already sitting down in front of them. In Invisible Storms, the lack of a written script leads to an electric atmosphere, as the cast develops a (seemingly, at least) effortless dynamic, and produces some bits of exceptional dialogue and fantastically precise interaction.

All of this would not be possible if every person on stage did not offer a brilliant performance: Sarah-Louise Young is an accurate mixture of admirable strength and manipulative imposition as Polish cleaner Katja; Richard Atwill makes us sympathise with Richard’s mixture of rage and resignation; Hywel John, playing Cat’s husband Max, is almost incandescent with tension in his equal longing for his wife, now distracted by her father’s cause, and for the mornings they used to spend buying strange vegetables at Borough Market (every Londoner can identify). Benjamin Peters is the very English, very awkward Conor, petrified and yet excited in front of Katja’s non-codified breaks in good manners - how to respond to that when you are used to the reassuring specificity of bureaucracy?

What emerges is a group of very real, very human people, with perhaps slightly enhanced and extreme but still natural reactions, and therefore very close to the audience. Instead of the black and white moral impositions risked by any work with political and environmental issues at its core, and instead of force-fed ambiguity, there is a very touchable likeness, and sympathy for everyone involved. And since, because of the nature of the production, this could be a unique opportunity to see it, it should not be missed.

Till 30 May 2009


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