“in Reice Weathers his lyrical style finds the perfect embodiment and exponent”
Ringo, a nickname imposed by a policeman who couldn’t pronounce his real name, is a displaced individual, living in a cardboard box in a park. The crouched, preoccupied form burbling away to himself on the darkened stage might be a familiar sight to many members of the audience as they enter the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, but his story is one of survival where many close to him have perished. An inner monologue opens out as the play starts and Ringo recalls his harrowing journey from child soldier to refugee, muses philosophically on his mental state and is transported by ecstatic reveries of his childhood, “Listening to voices I will never hear again.” The monologue culminates as he tries to reconnect with the receding shadow of his former self.
The show, by Flugelman Productions, is a partnership with refugee charities and creates a serendipitous link between the talents of an Australian dramatist now in his sixties, and those of this young South London actor. As a writer, Daniel Keene plainly has the ability to put himself in the shoes of others and express their stories through compelling structure and telling phrases. In interviews he professes a liking for poetry, a bare stage, and an underdog. “Boxman” provides all three, but in Reice Weathers his lyrical style finds the perfect embodiment and exponent.
The set by Jo Wright is limited to Ringo’s few belongings. Sounds of traffic and barking dogs (Sound Designer, Beth Duke) and occasional adjustments in the amount of daylight (Lighting Designer, Jess Bernberg) create an unembellished sense of the ordinary which allows Reice Weathers a simple canvas on which to create Ringo’s unnervingly cheerful character, as well as his often comic, sometimes horrifying and always vivid internal world. The characterisation was so convincing that in the Q&A afterwards a representative from the Refugee Council instinctively deferred to the bemused actor on the refugee experience.
The Blue Elephant is a community theatre whose work is far from parochial. In its support for refugees it addresses a pressing global issue, but it is also active in raising money and recruits. Their belief is that, in order to see the refugees as more than a statistic (according to UNHCR, 68 million people were forcibly displaced around the world in 2017), we must first see them as individuals. This short, one-man play is a powerful choice to deliver that objective, as it precisely reveals that inside each of those crouched figures there is a past, a childhood, a faltering trajectory. Edwina Strobl’s understated direction works well to frame the subject, though perhaps too hands-off in the build-up to the ending, but it is the central performance that stands out. Urgent, likeable, sad, powerful, but also original.
“what begins as a difficult, perhaps even daunting task for the audience, gradually becomes compelling, and towards the end even joyful”
Alongside his novel The Outsider, Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus is perhaps the best example of his radical approach to being, absurdism, which concludes that our only possible response to a futile existence is to enjoy the struggle itself. In the original Greek myth, Sisyphus is punished by the gods for trying to cheat death, and for eternity he is forced to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down the other side. But, for Camus, it is this endless process which becomes fulfilment itself, since the conclusion is only ever meaningless. We must, in his words, “imagine Sisyphus happy”.
The Metapraxis Ensemble describe themselves as a “flexible group of musicians and collaborators”, focusing on contemporary music, and adopting an experimental approach to performance. With Sisyphus Distressing, devised by producer Gregory Emfietzis, they attempt to explore Camus’ version of the myth via music, reinforced by drama, video projection and text readings. One may wonder (unironically) whether the Ensemble have set themselves an impossible task.
The first thing you notice as you enter the space is a huge, arcane construction in the centre of the room. It is a large wooden frame with a funnel placed above it and several bottles hanging below. Later it becomes clear that this is both instrument and narrative device. Several other instruments surround it, and on the floor are scattered reams of paper. As we enter, the musicians are standing in darkness; it is almost impossible to guess what might happen next.
The piece is, naturally, based around the music, which is dark and fragmented, and would almost be off-putting were it not so mesmerising. Large passages are simply silence; then from these gulfs, rhythms begin to generate, the percussion, largely played by Angela Wai-Nok Hui, building to thunderous onslaughts. The beats start to become hypnotic, and then abruptly everything stops. This cycle continues again and again, echoing the endless task of it’s subject. It is jarring and awkward, and certainly not easy listening. But, as with the fate of Camus’ Sisyphus, what begins as a difficult, perhaps even daunting task for the audience, gradually becomes compelling, and towards the end even joyful.
The sporadic sequences of actual drama revolve around a Sisyphean character played by the group’s pianist, Neil Georgeson. The strange contraption in the centre of the room comes into play. The musicians must endlessly fill the funnel with water, topping up the bottles which double as percussion instruments, the pitch of each bottle determined by how full it is. In the final acts, the analogy becomes more explicit still: Georgeson must drag large crates full of water bottles onto the stage, and then climb a ladder to fill the funnel, again and again in a monotonous cycle. Desperate attempts at tampering with the contraption are blocked by the other musicians. Georgeson’s character remains frantic until the end, but the passages of Camus’ original essay which are projected onto the back wall in intermittent bursts manage to unlock a strange optimism. As the endless cycles seem to draw to a close, you might almost wish they would simply never finish.
Such a radical approach to philosophy deserves an equally radical response in art, and the Metapraxis Ensemble have devised a totally unique examination of Sisyphus’ plight. But despite the sheer awkwardness of the piece, they still manage to discover the profound hopefulness of Camus’ essay, and contradiction though it may be, Sisyphus Distressed is a success.