Like Enemies of the State

Every child needs someone to care for them: Damien (Luiana Bonfim) with The Major (Duane Palmer)

Every child needs someone who cares: Damien (Luiana Bonfim) with The Major (Duane Palmer).

 

Bold subject matter requires bold execution, a fact that I feel much socially-conscious theatre forgets. All too often human interest stories are cloaked in the trappings of conventional staging, leaving the audience at a remove where they can ‘um’, ‘ah’ and ‘appreciate’ the plights of the characters before them. Then we return to our comfortable daily routines and forget all about it: “what an enriching evening of theatre that was…”

Tommy Lexén’s Like Enemies of the State certainly does not let you do this. In equal parts due to its source material and engaging staging, this performance drives home its message like a wake-up call to the guts.

The subject matter: the lives and experiences of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The script: composed almost verbatim from interviews that Lexén conducted in the DRC two years ago.

It is interesting enough that this material reaches us in the format of a play; docu-theatre is not one of the most common mediums around after all. Yet Like Enemies of the State demonstrates overwhelmingly that theatre can do justice to this sensitive material. In fact, the medium is very specifically used to disruptive effect, providing a welcome antidote to some of the banalities of documentary filmmaking.

The four actors do a solid job of jumping in and out of multiple roles, as we are shown snapshots from multiple perspectives. Intimate life stories out of the mouths of child soldiers, the ‘official’ line on their use by the FARDC authorities and an American journalist’s attempts to get closer to the truth all vie for attention on one small stage.

When greeted with unfamiliar material, it is particularly difficult to engage a theatrical audience. Specific references to cultural traditions, institutions and governments that we are unacquainted with can become overwhelming; especially when delivered as concise monologues. Like Enemies of the State does a very good job of avoiding this (all too familiar) problem; firstly by easing us in gently with BBC-style reportage before we are introduced to the central characters. Secondly, through actors breaking the fourth wall and interacting with the audience.

This latter point is integral to the play’s success and demonstrates the advantages of the medium over film. After a church ceremony, the characters administer blessings to the audience, take off their caps and ask for collections. A child who has recently left the rebel army now makes his living selling petrol, and does the rounds of the audience, fixing your gaze with a hopeful look. An intimidating Congolese man known as ‘the Butcher’ (Duane Palmer) offers you a child prostitute with a smirk. As a member of this audience you cannot simply put up the safety barrier and watch it solely as entertainment. You are reminded viscerally that you are connected to the issues at work in the play, which holds a mirror up to our own complacency.

This audience interaction is coupled with skilful multimedia immersion. Film clips are projected onto hanging sheets, drum beats are banged out on crates as the cast break out in impromptu song, and televisions and video cameras are used by the actors themselves.

Ben Osborn and Hiroko Matsuo’s sound and set design are both very well suited to this whirlwind of a play. Scene changes are short and seamless, with all the props and costumes laid out on stage, ensuring that the performance never loses momentum. Characters who are not delivering monologues will constantly be engaged in other activities around the stage, yet it does not detract from the overall focus. What results is a charged environment, where the eye can rest wherever it wishes and find details that amplify the whole.

It is not a rare thing nowadays to witness the ‘unheard voices’ of groups that we were previously unfamiliar with: that is at the heart of the documentary approach. It is however a rare thing to see a performance that elevates those unheard voices into visceral and engaging art.

Like Enemies of the State is the most effective vehicle that could be chosen for its source material and does justice to the children’s stories that lie at the heart of it. For that reason, you should probably go see it.

 

*** Like Enemies of the State is running from Tuesday 15th – Saturday 26th October at the New Diorama Theatre in London. For more info and tickets, visit: http://newdiorama.com/whats-on/like-enemies-of-the-state ***

 

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The Cantabrigian Tales

Canterbury Tales

The Pilgrims pitched their tents…

Following the whacked-out zaniness that theatre company in situ brought to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I decided to check out their follow-up production of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Being staged at The Leper Chapel in Cambridge, an intimate, 30-person capacity church, we were surprised to see tents set up around the venue upon our arrival. But then again, this is in situ…expect to have your expectations dashed.

We were greeted and ushered into the chapel, where upon entering we see a motley bunch of characters, attired rather scrappily in all manner of gear. Some of the pilgrims were clear from their dress, whereas others were pretty much in contemporary garb with Nike rucksacks.

After some communal chanting and humming, each character introduces themselves in middle English, before popping to the front of the group and saying something like “I’m the Miller, my tale is about x, y and z, and if you’d like to hear more, please follow me outside.” The play therefore takes a kind of open promenade format, where the pilgrims pitch up their tents outside the chapel, whilst you wander around at will, dipping in and out of the stories you wish to hear.

This makes reviewing the play actually somewhat difficult, because we ultimately saw only four of the eleven tales on offer that evening. Luckily the tales are compressed massively and the language is contemporised, although the tellers will often drop in Chaucerian quotes and explain them, often in a very humorous way.

The standouts (that we saw) were Richard Spaul’s Miller’s Tale, one of the bawdier of Chaucer’s canon. Spaul played up the filthiness masterly, managing to mime anal-licking and quote Barack Obama within the same sentence. Historical inaccuracies are played up for laughs, and the idea here is that the teller really leaves their imprint on the tale. This does not just go for Chaucer’s fictional tellers, but in situ’s actors as well, who don’t try to embody their characters realistically, but try to leave their own mark on the tale as well.

This worked particularly well with Kathleen Richardson’s rendition of The Knight’s Tale, which was really quite innovative and far removed from the original. Camped out in a fortune teller’s stall behind the chapel, she narrated the (greatly condensed) tale mainly through tarot cards. Occasionally, Richardson would break out of the tale and digress on the nature and meaning of tarot, giving some indication as to why she’d chosen this means of exposition. Ultimately, this was a very personal performance that tried to carry a bit more meaning than some of the bawdier tales on offer.

Meanwhile, inside the chapel: all the pilgrims who are currently on ‘standby’ deliver lectures on various aspects of medieval history related to their tales. Audience members can come and go as they please, even following a pilgrim inside if they particularly liked their story in order to get further information. This was a fantastic idea, although we didn’t devote too much time to it, wanting to cram in as many actual tales as possible.

At the end of the evening, a bell was rung, the pilgrims all file into the chapel, and build up a polyphonic chant. This builds to an overwhelming drone as more and more of the pilgrims join in line, until they raise they arms…and bow. Yet again, in situ have built-up a thoroughly original and entertaining take on a classic, and I certainly recommend you get on down to The Leper Chapel this week.

The Canterbury Tales is playing June 25-29 at The Leper Chapel, off Newmarket Road, Cambridge.