“a gripping and desperately sad study of pain, addiction and loss”
Written by Serafina Cusack and performed by three members of the Anima Theatre Company, Blue Departed is a remarkably intense piece of work. A modern, urban version of Dante’s descent through the nine circles of Hell, it details the utter despair endured by a drug addict (brilliantly captured by Mark Conway) who has just lost the woman he loves (Rebecca Layoo) to a heroin overdose. Cast in the role of Dante, he relays his suffering in a near-continuous series of exchanges with his dead lover, who ‘speaks’ to him through interrogations, recriminations and reminiscences – angry, heartbroken, defiant, loving – and who physically haunts and taunts him around the stage with a gymnastic fluidity. Their paranoid, nihilistic, almost stream-of-consciousness chatter jumps around in both chronology and location – from his flat to her funeral service and a wake that seems to take place in a casino – underscoring how oppressive and all-pervasive his state of self-loathing has become. His earnest younger brother (Richard James Clarke) provides glimpses of sanity and warmth, but the downward trajectory is inescapable.
This one-hour play is certainly bleak, but flashes of humour offer some much-needed relief. Props are minimal – a couple of stools, a few items of clothing hanging from a rail, two plates of food that have a grotesquely comic fate – but the stripped-back set is effective because most of the ‘action’ exists in the shadowy forms of memory or hallucination. It’s a play that mainly occurs within a fevered mind.
Within the small ‘Cage’ room at The Vaults, the actors have limited space to work in. But director Henry C. Krempels turns this limitation to the play’s advantage: the restricted floor area only serves to further highlight the characters’ sense of claustrophobia and imminent panic.
Bursts of menacing ambient sound are used creatively, with layers of distorted electronics accompanying moments of crisis or heightened awareness. This works well in that it’s hugely atmospheric, but there were points at which the noise was too loud and threatened to drown out the actors. That’s a shame because it is a play in which every word counts.
This one criticism aside, Blue Departed is a gripping and desperately sad study of pain, addiction and loss.
“sometimes its cleverness is confusing, and occasionally the dialogue does become repetitive”
At the height of the refugee crisis, in 2015, over seven hundred people drowned in one morning crossing the Mediterranean on the hazardous boat trip from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa. They were just a part of the mass Syrian exodus trying to reach Europe, handing over control of their lives to fate, knowing that there was only a slim chance of ever getting it back. For those lucky enough to reach dry land, the next step on their journey was hopping on the overnight train to Paris; a direct route between the countries, which has become known as the “train of second chances”.
This night train is the setting for “The Sleeper”, written and directed by Henry C. Krempels, currently running at The Space following its debut in Edinburgh last year. Drawn from his experiences of riding that train himself as research for a commissioned magazine article, this slick and powerful theatre piece revolves around Karina, a white, British traveller; Amena – a Syrian refugee without papers or passport, or money; and the officious guard on board the train.
And ‘revolve’ is what the drama does. The story frequently finds itself back at the beginning, allowing us to observe the events from differing viewpoints – our own shifting perceptions being cleverly swayed each time the characters subtly reshape the narrative.
Karina (Michelle Fahrenheim) reports a refugee (Sarah Agha) hiding in her bunk on the overnight train in Europe. Fahrenheim brilliantly captures that very English mix of obsequiousness and hauteur. Is she really trying to help or is she just a professional complainer looking for a quick upgrade to first class? Joshua Jacob, as the French guard, is the voice of authority. Unbending in his commitment to ‘following procedure’ he chillingly reminds us of the historical dangers of taking this edict to the extreme. But the shining light is Agha’s strong portrayal of the refugee. Initially mute, she eventually seizes the narrative for herself. Even at one point totally smashing down the fourth wall and stopping the action, stepping out of character, and questioning the other two ‘white’ actors’ right to be involved in the telling of what is, after all, her story. “A play is not going to solve the refugee crisis!” she pointedly laments.
This self-awareness in the writing keeps the piece entertaining and avoids the pitfalls of diatribe, but sometimes its cleverness is confusing, and occasionally the dialogue does become repetitive. But, despite an overly drawn-out conclusion, this is an important piece of theatre: thought-provoking and illuminating. The cyclical structure reminds us that there is always more than one way of looking at things. Krempels challenges our preconceptions about the crisis and allows us to absorb the fact that there is “no single solution”. Again – like the play itself – that can be interpreted in more than one way.