Brian Friel Theatre, QFT
12th May 2015
‘Ambitious’ would be the best word for this production. In the context of a student performance, the choice of text and the scale of production would definitely fall under that description. To pull off such a project, however, it needed to be bold and powerful, and unfortunately I feel that, in this instance, it missed the mark.
The text itself is a three-act piece that takes place before, during and after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. The first act centres itself around the proletariat Vladu family and the bourgeois Antonescus. It charts their lives in the run up to the revolution, and through them we are shown how life may have been under the oppressive, brutal rule of Ceausescu and his secret police, the Securitate. The performances in this act lacked clarity- we were expected to recognize that the performers were playing different characters, but there didn’t appear to be a clear distinction that allowed us to do this. The presentation of the scenes was episodic and each had its own musical interlude- after the third scene, with many still to come, this began to feel overused. I feel this was down to a combination of directorial decision-making with regard to the form of the scenes, and a lack of energy on the part of the cast, almost as if they were holding back for the second act, which was far more dynamic.
The set for this production consisted of block staging, brick-effect lino-clad pillars, and a backdrop of three columns of rough white fabric, representing a basic imagining of a broken and ruined country. But the literal presentation of this, in the form of the poorly constructed pillars, felt like an easy choice, and the decision to cover them in lino felt uninspired. The gray block staging also felt a little thrown together, which is a shame, as everything was utilized well throughout the performance- the design just felt unfinished.
The white fabric, however, was a great touch, and the three strips almost felt like a flag with no colour, the flag, perhaps, of a nation yet to find its new identity in the chaos of revolution. This was set designer David Paulin’s first experience in set design, and it was a hearty effort: individually, all the elements made sense, they just needed tidying up and tying together more. Personally, I feel that the richness of the script required a more understated, muted set, in order to let it shine through, perhaps something as simple as the removal of the pillars and some moving around of the gray blocks.
As we moved into the second act, the production gained dynamism. The scene changes were snappy and effective for the presentation of the verbatim-style text. We were given first-hand accounts of experiences of the revolution by individuals whom playwright Caryl Churchill interviewed face to face shortly after the uprising. Under the direction of Emma Coleman, these short bursts of dialogue, although a little flat in terms of delivery from the cast, set a steady pace that led to some fantastic tableaux moments. One of these striking images came in the form of a tank, formed by the cast holding large Romanian flags with holes in the middle and an outstretched fist clenching a carnation in place of the barrel.
Amos McCormack’s use of lighting in this act was also much more effective than in the other two, creating a striking juxtaposition between the scenes of revolution and peacetime, even if unintentionally. Although very literal in its form, the scene of the genocide of the revolutionaries by the Securitate was beautifully done, with a skillful application of a strobe light by McCormack to create a harrowing, poignant, almost filmic moment. It is in these scenes as well that we saw David Paulin’s stage really come to life, and got the best glimpse of his talent.
The closing act saw us revisit the two families we met initially in the play for a wedding that brought them together, even if it did turn into a brawl, which was one of the most impressively choreographed fight scenes I have seen on stage. This act also contained a moving scene where we were introduced to an orphaned young boy named Toma, played perfectly by Holly Hannaway. Hannaway’s performance was without doubt the most powerful of the play, her almost manic movements and awkward posture embodying the damaged character she was portraying. This character spoke no words, but his silence spoke volumes, and led to the most poignantly delivered lines: “Does he talk?” “Yes.” “I haven’t heard him.” “He doesn’t know yet.”
Going back to the core of this production, choosing to tackle such a little-known script by such a prolific playwright, which documents a horrific yet hopeful event in history, was extremely ambitious. Even if much of the execution was disappointing, I have to give credit to the company who, at such an early stage in their careers, should be proud that they created a performance that, at the very least, showcased their future potential.