October 6, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Play Without a Title (Fail Better) @ The CAPITAL Centre: Responses

Despite having worked alongside the Artistic Director of Fail Better productions for about a year, it’s perhaps surprising that this is the first production I’ve seen by that company. Play Without a Title, however, is special for a number of reasons. It combines the professional experience of the company with an all-student acting company (as well as students filling various creative and technical roles). It’s the world premiere of a new translation of Lorca’s play by academic David Johnston. And, it’s a rare performance of an unfinished play, the first act of an experimental and exciting piece by the Spanish master. It’s also tremendous.

Clocking in at about fifty minutes, Play Without a Title was an intense experience. Nomi Everall’s spectacular set filled the tiny studio space of the CAPITAL Centre, an impressive self-contained set that created a theatre auditorium on one side, a backstage area on the other and a grey ‘stage’ separating the two. Each space had its own distinct atmosphere, carefully separated from the others. The auditorium gradually filled with formally dressed couples, tapping their feet, finding their seats, hanging their coats up, all in a highly comedic fashion. The backstage area, meanwhile, was an Aladdin’s Cave of props and costumes, in which two actors appeared moving in slow-motion, tentatively trying on costumes and transforming themselves into the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream whom they were playing. The stage, meanwhile, was plain and bare (a grey area, if you will), a place of pronouncements, or ‘sermons’. Perhaps paradoxically, this space was dominated by the Director, the central ‘actor’ of Lorca’s play, who took to the stage in an effort to subvert the usual expectations of the theatre’s set-up. Bridging the two worlds on either side of him, the Director’s rhetoric and force drove the play’s action as he called for a rethink about the essence of what we call ‘theatre’.

The play’s most rivetting aspects turned on the debate of what constituted theatre and real life, and the differences between them. In this debate, no-one could ever be ‘right’. The Director used horrific examples from real life to illustrate what he considered to be ‘truth’, but yet recoiled from other examples when used against him. One audience member announced he was leaving the theatre at the mention of the concept of a ‘real’ ‘truth’, but his wife only joined him when forced to confront a specific example. In a lovely piece of doubling (though whether it is called for by the script I don’t know), the two who left reappeared as actors in the backstage area, making themselves up and changing into theatrical characters. This corresponded effectively with the comments of the Leading Lady to the Director, in which she cried out against the ugliness of real life, the inability of man to deal with it for more than a moment before having to hide again; the reappearance of audience members who had run back to the ‘safety’ of real life in the backstage world of the theatre provided an apt visual metaphor.

The confrontation between on- and off-stage allowed for some startling moments of drama. The Director directly challenged his audience members, and part of the fascination came from watching how they responded and the points at which they were finally provoked into responding. The forces which held them in their seats even as they were being told to leave where almost tangible, with Lorca’s text bringing to life the unwritten rules of the theatre, exploiting the attitude of passive activity (or active passivity) in which audiences expect to enjoy the theatre. The two couples – one of whom reacted and left, the other of whom stayed to watch in quiet amusement – demonstrated two very different approaches to theatregoing that enraged the Director in different ways.

In contrast, the Leading Lady spoke for the virtues of disguise in theatre as an actress who was permanently in one character or another. Despite the Director’s initial disdain for her, her power was overwhelming, unbalancing his arguments and throwing him into confusion with her near-unshakable confidence. It was this confidence, and this obstinant reliance on the worlds she created for herself rather than the real world, that led to the play’s funniest and most moving moment – as the theatre began to burn and an audience member cried for her children, the Leading Lady scolded her for ‘saying it so badly’, instructing her on how to enact her grief more effectively. Her outlook was simultaneously repulsive and sorely tempting, a complete and total retreat from the banality/security of real life.

As the play drew to its climax, and rebellion outside the theatre threatened the safety of all inside, the two worlds collapsed together. The two halves of the stage slid together in a crash, eliminating the ‘stage’ and merging the backstage world with the auditorium. Actresses dressed as fairies spilled into the aisles where a shot revolutionary was dying, addressing each other by their fairy names. With both worlds threatened at the same time, the debates about the danger and fears of real life took on an urgent dimension, with the Director calling for the revolutionaries to be welcomed into the theatre while an audience member took matters into his own hands and shot the first man through the door. As fear and flames engulfed the stage, the play crashed to its end, the Leading Lady still calling for "My Lorenzo…"

Jonathan Heron’s production urgently calls for reappraisal of this buried gem, an important and vital treatise on the dynamics between theatre and life, stage and auditorium, perrformer and audience. Thought-provoking, moving and in places extremely funny, the play demands to be almost immediately watched again, and the publication of Johnston’s translation next month will hopefully invite further productions. For now, though, this is an excellent and evocative piece that showcases a superb student cast and pushes the technical boundaries of the CAPITAL Centre’s space. Don’t even bother trying for tickets, the run is booked solid.

Posted in Theatre review