“Mahy’s performance perfectly condenses an unstable and volatile mix of anger, vulnerability, belligerence and dependence”
Philip Ridley is a playwright whose finger is always on the pulse, and even though “Vincent River” was written at the birth of this century it has lost none of its punch. Unfortunately, this has as much to do with how slowly society changes as it does with the timeless quality of the writing. During the last five years, homophobic hate crime has reportedly been rising. What is seldom reported is the aftermath: the personal story that this play heart-breakingly throws into the spotlight.
Anita is in her new flat, having been forced to flee her previous home. A youth has wandered in through the door into her living room. He is Davey, wearing a black hoodie, a black eye and an even darker obsession with Anita whom he has been stalking for months; ever since Anita’s son, Vincent, was murdered by thugs in a disused railway station’s toilet. Over the next eighty minutes, these two characters fight to understand themselves and each other. Played out in real time the audience are drawn in so much that we feel like the third character in this drama.
The rhythm and melody of Ridley’s dialogue is a gift for the two actors, and under the assured direction of Robert Chevara, the pulse never wavers. Thomas Mahy plays Davey like a dangerous dog whose threat of menace and aggression can be swiftly curbed with a flash of Anita’s bared teeth. Mahy’s performance perfectly condenses an unstable and volatile mix of anger, vulnerability, belligerence and dependence. Yet the undoubted force that drives this piece is the charismatic Louise Jameson, with her matchlessly poignant portrayal of a mother suffering her worst nightmare. A naked study of grief for the loss of a son that is believable throughout. Her raw pain is the skeleton upon which she drapes cloaks of humour, scorn and even tenderness. We are riveted right up to the climax when she finally rips through her armour with a blood curdling howl.
Jameson and Mahy circle each other like wild cats on Nicolai Hart Hansen’s simple and effective set that conveys Anita’s new flat with just a sofa, some unpacked boxes and quite a few opened bottles of gin. But beneath the humdrum stillness of the surroundings runs the vicious undercurrent of Vincent’s murder. The overall effect is hypnotic and electrifying. This is one of Ridley’s more accessible scripts, rooted in reality rather than veering off into the surreal promiscuity or gothic gratuitousness he is known for. But it is no less provocative – in fact its naturalism strengthens the message. The honesty of these performers makes us question the honesty with which we lead our own lives. Truth hurts – but we need that pain in order to start the healing process.
“It is highly effective in its emotional whiplash”
There’s nothing like going solo to an immersive theatre production which includes a whole lot of partner dancing, as well as a suggestion for everyone to kiss for about a minute (a suggestion, to my surprise, enthusiastically taken on by most of the audience) to make you wish the ground would literally open up beneath you, or at least make you wish you’d absolutely insisted on a plus-one.
The audience is fair warned from the opening line that their participation is expected. But how is one to know that this will entail not just happily accepting a cup of borscht and clapping along on request, but also marching around the room waving flags and placards, and chanting Ukrainian protest slogans?
We’re led in to this revolution by a very cheery Canadian, played by Michael Edwards, who tells us of his experience of the 2014 Kiev Uprising. This is also where he meets his future partner, played by Georgina Beaty. What begins as a sunny tale of rediscovering his Ukrainian roots, coupled with a bizarre but endearing meet-cute, quickly descends in to a frenzy of fire-blazing barricades, shouts of protest, and banshee wails from a widowed bride as she wraps her corpse groom in her wedding veil.
Beautifully harmonised Ukrainian folk music alternates with Bass-heavy EDM, creating a soundtrack of extreme sentiments. All of the music is arranged by ‘Balaklava Blues’, an outfit consisting only of Mark and Marichka Marczyk, who are also the co-creators and lead characters of ‘Counting Sheep’; this is their story.
Nicolai Hart-Hansen’s design is clever – a banquet table running the length of the room becomes the material for a barricade, as do tyres and sandbags stored under what were the audience’s benches, now dismantled to make room for protest. From the outset the audience is encouraged to use their phones to record and take photos, as do the cast themselves. This found footage is projected live on to surrounding walls, interspersed with scenes from the actual Kiev Uprising.
The production is full of energetic performances, particularly so from Hanna Arkipchuk and Siarhei Kvachonak, whose tragic love story is enacted almost in the background throughout, but whom we become heavily invested in nonetheless.
That being said, there is something uncomfortable about an immersive play in which the audience is pushed to participate in a political moment still ongoing. What Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, directors and co-writers, have created is a confusion of documentary, play and propaganda. It is highly effective in its emotional whiplash – we’re at a party, now we’re at a protest; we’re at a wedding, now we’re under siege; at one moment the audience dances to a waltz whose lulling rhythm becomes a learning tool for a protestor’s chant – we don’t know what it means but we’re beating the air and shouting along all the same. Somehow it seems irresponsible to merge personal experience, political agenda and participation, and all the more so because it is such an effective production.