“It’s a heavy monologue, but Wass regularly drops dark, deadpan jokes that work all the better for their unexpected nature”
The Thelmas are back with their second show at VAULT Festival this year. While Santi and Naztook us to India in the 1940s, Notch takes a scathing look at present-day Dublin. An unnamed European immigrant from an unnamed Slavic country finds the West, Ireland in particular, isn’t the land of opportunity she thought it would be.
Drawing from personal experience, Croatian writer/performer Danaja Wass uses spoken word and visual media to tell her story. In Dublin, Wass’ character lives in hostels and works a minimum wage job. She dreams of climbing up the ladder, but the current anti-European sentiment is a heavy weight on her shoulders. Ireland’s disdain for foreigners affects her mental health to the point that she loses her job. With no money, and no friends or family in the country, she faces homelessness.
In the wake of Brexit, Wass aims a well-timed shot to the heart of Britain and Ireland’s xenophobia. Directed by Madelaine Moore, Notch is a fearless confrontation of a broken system. Wass gives a committed performance, sliding between a Croatian and Dublin accent. Behind her is a TV, which sometimes displays clips of her love interest (Evelyn Lockley). Other times, closeups of Wass pulling at her face reiterates her corporeal existence while her character is made to feel invisible.
It’s a heavy monologue, but Wass regularly drops dark, deadpan jokes that work all the better for their unexpected nature. However, the aggressively fragmented composition of the show is a risky choice that doesn’t pay off. Split into jagged, haphazard sections of storytelling and spoken word, the narration is very difficult to follow. Although a sense of disorder may have been intentional, the chaotic structure too often leaves the audience out of the loop. Sudden jumps in tone, time, and place make piecing it all together a challenge. Jerky transitions and abrupt changes in lighting (Martha Godfrey) give a rocky overall impression.
Wass has a strong voice, and hers is undoubtedly a story we should be listening to right now. Notch is a bold piece with a singular perspective – it’s a shame so much feels lost in the jumble.
“There’s a lot of charm in the storytelling – the playfulness and joy in the girls friendship is particularly lovely – but the script can only skate across the surface of these turbulent waters”
1947 was a tumultuous year in sub-continental history. India became independent, and partition forced the migration of over ten million Indian Muslims to Pakistan, during which, millions were slaughtered. It is against this backdrop that we watch the friendship of two young girls play out. Santi and Naz are best friends from the same village; they play together and share confidences as best friends do. But as they grow up, their difference – Santi is Sikh and Naz is Muslim – is highlighted by the political and religious turmoil playing out around them. At the same time, Naz’s increasing awareness of her attraction to her friend – even as she is betrothed to an older man from outside the village – provides its own drama.
This is a lot to cover in an hour long piece, and as a result, none of the thematic strands can be explored with any depth. There’s a lot of charm in the storytelling – the playfulness and joy in the girls friendship is particularly lovely – but the script can only skate across the surface of these turbulent waters. Although accessible to everyone, the play will be richer for those with some knowledge of this history; Rose-Marie Christian (Santi) is splendidly funny as she impersonates Gandhi and Jinnah, for example, but funnier if these figures are already present in the mind’s eye. In contrast, the true horror of the trains full of murdered migrants is impossible to convey with a single reference, and, despite a writerly attempt to address this through analogy (the decapitation of a donkey in the village) it still seemed superficial and somewhat grating. Similarly, the fleeting moments addressing Naz’s attraction to her friend left this reviewer wanting more.
The luxury of a longer time slot would iron out a lot of the problems . Guleraana Mir and Afshan D’Souza-Lodhi’s script takes poetic flight at certain points, but these moments didn’t really have time to breathe. Similarly, the sketched-in movement sequences have the potential to be much more fully realised and really give the texture that they only teased at here. This evening’s performance felt like the beginning of a creative journey, rather than the culmination of one, but one well worth continuing.