“fearlessly addresses the concerns of the Trump-era presidency with chilling historical references”
In a prison interrogation room in 2019, Rick has one chance to tell reporter Gloria his side of the story. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Time Square, the American president orders a “round up”: the mass deportation of immigrants. When other countries refuse to engage in this scheme of ‘repatriation’, the number of detainees sky rockets and America is running out of places to put them. In the middle of all this is Rick. Rick runs a detainee prison. He is dealing with overcrowding, cholera, a heat wave and now governmental pressure. Months later, he is in prison himself, the President has been impeached and we are about to find out why. Bravely set only a stone’s throw into the future (although written in 2016), Robert Schenkkan’s dystopian narrative is a sinister vision of the possible consequences of a violent anti-immigration governmental stance, and begs the question: is it a crime to follow orders?
Jez Bond directs the UK premiere of ‘Building the Wall’ flawlessly. We watch the interview through the glass of an interrogation room (designed by Sarah Beaton). The room itself is bright white, bare apart from the obvious table and chairs, a water dispenser and a black mirror/window set into the wall. The sound (Theo Holloway) and lighting (Sally Ferguson) design are detailed and intelligent. We can only hear the characters speak when Gloria’s sound recorder is on, and the interview is underscored by sounds of violence from the prison, reminding the audience of what Rick’s everyday has become. As the play begins, long white ceiling lights flicker off, section by section.
Angela Griffin plays the African American academic, the only person Rick has granted access to. Trevor White plays Rick. Both are infinitely believable and I cannot fault their performances, but the characters themselves lack a certain level of depth and complexity. There is very little tension between them, meaning the ‘thriller’ element that the play defines itself with is missing, and the characters often serve as vehicles for the narrative. We do get a small amount of insight into Gloria’s life, her experiences of racism at an early age for example. Schenkkan also positions Rick as a cog within the system despite his differentiation between “the illegals” and “real Americans”, which adds some nuance to his character. However, given the structure of the play, their predominant function is to push the plot forwards and they have little development of their own.
Despite this, ‘Building the Wall’ is an intensely thought-provoking play, that fearlessly addresses the concerns of the Trump-era presidency with chilling historical references – a warning that must be heeded internationally. It is a brazenly political play that succeeds in delivering a message that needs to be heard. Whilst the characters are at points reduced to narrative vehicles, Griffin and White deliver competent and convincing performances, and the production is slick and well-done.
“the performances are unrushed and powerfully moving”
From the very opening we realise that this is a ‘Cherry Orchard’ with a difference. As part of a series of classic plays relevant to today, Phil Willmott’s adaptation is set in 1917 amidst the Bolshevik uprising, the murder of the Tsar and the uncertain future of the middle classes; it is almost fast-forwarding to the consequences Chekhov hinted at when he wrote it in 1903. Ranyevskaya returns to Russia after five years in France and faces the prospect of having to sell her beloved family home to the son of a serf who had worked for them. To heighten the immediacy and urgency felt in modern Russia, features like music and magic have been left out, avoiding any slackening of pace, the compact stage area concentrates the action, and the outcome of the play fits the confusion of both then and now. To add to the unpredictability, the role of the elderly footman Fiers has been cut, due to a fall suffered by the actor, Robert Donald. ‘Cherry Orchard’ is a play which revolves around memories in times of change so Fiers’ absence means missing the richness of the most distant past but with it more focus on the present.
Far from the lofty grandeur of larger stages, Justin Williams and Jonny Rust cleverly create faded opulence with the simple use of stairs and significant props. The lighting by Sam Waddington dresses the changes of mood and atmosphere, and the music and sound (Theo Holloway) are imaginatively designed to both set the scene and underline key moments of drama, though the sinister rumbling of the overhead trains is presumably unplanned. Penn O’Gara’s attention to detail of the costumes adds dimension to the personalities.
The individuality and ensemble of the actors is perfectly crafted. Each one’s complexity interlocking with the others to bring an array of emotions. Suanne Braun and Richard Gibson are excellent as the aristocrat Ranyevskaya and her brother Gaev, instilling huge sympathy despite their superficial, frivolous lives. Lopakhin, played by Christopher Laishley, portrays the strength of the rising middle classes but painful awareness of his roots. Dunyasha (Molly Crookes) and Yasha (Hugo Nicholson) represent the servants, breaking away from the past constraints of their position with a confidence and ease in several entertaining scenes. Even the smaller role of Madame Pishchik (a male landowner in the original) played by Caroline Wildi, is a subtly uncomfortable presence on stage, as a further reminder of the plight of the rich. Daughter Anya and former tutor Trofimov (Lucy Menzies and Feliks Mathur) radiate the youthful optimism as the country trembles with uncertainty.
As Director, Phil Willmott succeeds in producing a disquieting ‘Cherry Orchard’, stepping away from the traditional, more static Chekhov and connecting with today’s social climate in Russia. Apart from a couple of instances where the tension is broken precipitately, the performances are unrushed and powerfully moving, maintaining the farcical tragedy. In keeping with element of the unforeseen, the intentional changes to the script combine with the unexpected loss of Fiers to make this a brave and intelligent production, deserving credit for reawakening a classic to new interpretation.