UNION at the Arcola Theatre
“amongst the yelling and huffing, there are a lot of poignant and heartfelt moments in Union”
Given the state liberal politics is currently in, it’s understandable there would be a sense of panicked urgency in trying to get an important message across; the time for nuance is over, the time for yelling is now. But didactic theatre, which this ends up being, isn’t super fun for a few reasons: Firstly, no-one likes being yelled at for 90 minutes. Sure, art isn’t always pleasant, but it is supposed to be affective, and after a while this starts to feel less like theatre and more like a public service announcement.
Secondly, if you’ve got a leftist agenda, sermonising to an off-west end theatre audience is likely preaching to the choir. I can’t imagine many passionate capitalists are signing up to see a play about a big-time property developer having a moral crisis. That being said, amongst the yelling and huffing, there are a lot of poignant and heartfelt moments in Union.
Saskia is at the peak of her career. She’s about to sign her biggest development deal which will potentially lead to partnership. But in a moment of insanity- or clarity- she flees the meeting before signing, changes into her very expensive Lycra gear and decides to run the many miles home through London, meeting a plethora of colourful characters along the way, each with a little lesson to impart.
Writer Max Wilkinson’s 2021 play Rainer feels very much like the seed for Union: One main character flies through London, clearly having a breakdown and meeting all sorts on her journey. But where Rainer was focused on a singular experience of personal trauma, Union uses Saskia’s meltdown to convey a much bigger issue: the capitalist sterilisation of big cities. This feels like a more interesting use of the trope, and the script itself feels more sophisticated.
Director Wiebke Green’s recent credits include Philip Ridley’s Poltergeist, The Beast Will Rise, and Tarantula. There’s a definite link between Union and old hand Ridley’s works, but it’s hard to know how much comes from the writing and how much the production. Union has the same non-stop intensity, the same amped up spiralling and the same inevitable ‘big reveal’ when the audience learns a crucial piece of information that explains the aforementioned spiralling, all of which have become Ridley’s trademarks. It’s affecting, sure, but it’s also a bit formulaic now. And just as I found it hard to focus during Ridley’s 85-minute rant Poltergeist last year, I find Union too consistently high-strung to remain interested.
Maintaining this level of high-energy performance, though, is undoubtedly impressive. Dominique Tipper as Saskia never lets up, pounding the stage and virtually spitting out her dialogue throughout. She’s convincing as both the cutthroat corporatist and the wavering moralist. When she leaps back into her teenage past she avoids that often cloying, babyish performance so many people give, and instead presents young Saskia as fully formed if still malleable and vulnerable to sinister forces.
As it happens, set and costume designer Kit Hinchcliffe also worked on Ridley’s Poltergeist, but where there was only one character to dress, and no costume changes, in this production she’s had a little more opportunity to stretch herself. All costume changes happen in full view, with the help of two very full clothing racks. This keeps all the energy on stage, rather than any hurried exits and entries. And given you couldn’t very well design the whole of Regent’s Canal, Hinchcliffe has opted for a near empty stage, and the visible unworn costumes give a little colour to the production.
While this might easily have been a one-person play, with Tipper merely jumping between characters, we have the added pleasure of Sorcha Kennedy and Andre Bullock playing all the bit parts as well as giving live sound effects such as panicked heavy breathing and crying babies. For the most part, this works really well, giving an extra dimension to an otherwise singular voice, and also creating the impression that Saskia is being watched- not just by an audience of 100, but by judging parties in her own world.
Both Kennedy and Bullock are excellent chameleons, using quick costume changes to transform into any number of people. The only time it doesn’t quite fit is with Saskia’s husband Leon. Where every other character is enjoyably cartoonish in comparison to the multi-faceted Saskia, Leon should really be slightly more detailed in order for their complicated alliance to make sense, and this just isn’t possible when Kennedy is switching characters in 30 seconds with the mere addition of a hat and glasses.
The aggressive development of London, or as one character says, the turning of the world in to “one big f*cking Pret” is a real and scary issue. Wilkinson has, in a lot of ways, hit the nail on the head. It’s just that he’s hit it a little too hard.
UNION at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed on 25th July 2023
by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
Previously reviewed at this venue: