Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Visual and Script and Harrower and Ridley

Although a working definition of visual theatre gets me through manipulate (roughly, it's performance that uses the image as the primary carrier of information, with slight overlaps into dance and physical theatre), there is other theatre that eschews the visual. David Harrower's Fringe success Ciara is a sprightly monologue that unfolds the interior life of a woman on the edge of Glasgow's violent underworld, performed to perfection by Blythe Duff. Unsurprisingly, it is driven by Harrower's attention to detail and facility with language that straddles the colloquial and the theatrical, but as a live performance, there is little communication through the visual dimension.

That isn't to say that Duff's performance is pedestrian, but her movements and postures evoke little beyond the script's storytelling magic. Duff's Ciara is a woman clinging to respectability, despite her family's gangster antics, but the force of the writing needs little support. Consequently, its performance in a theatre - at least in the production which wowed the Citizens - could be easily transferred into radio. The telling moments come from Harrower's unpicking of Ciara's artistic tastes and social ambitions, as well as Duff's measured, unrepentant tone.

Against this, Philip Ridley's Dark Vanilla Jungle has several key moments that rely on the movement to expose a subtext to his story of childish sexual obsession and deceit. Gemma Whelan (despite being a mature woman and familiar in all action mode in Game of Thrones) pulls off a depiction of  neurotic teenager Andrea and, at a crucial moment, falls into a twitching fit that explains why her narrative has become increasingly erratic. Whelan throws herself to the floor, exposed and vulnerable, and in the kicking of her legs expresses the severe mental trauma that has led her character from abused to abuser.

Ridley - one of that generation of playwrights who burst through in the 1990s and became known as the neo-brutalists - is concerned with the hidden depths of the psyche, whence monsters spring forth, and how violence has its roots in the previous experience of the perpetrator. Andrea is as much a victim as a criminal and her abuse of a vegetative soldier is clearly linked to her own abuse at the hands of a paedophile. This tension comes out in the jerky, uncomfortable physicality of Whelan - and her fragmented speech.

Andrea and Ciara are both clearly concerned with their public appearance (they begin by stating that this is their version of events), and both present an image that puts them in the right. It is perhaps a measure of their respective ages that their physicality is so different: Ciara can quite clearly handle herself, while Andrea runs about wild and awkward.

Like Ciara, Dark Vanilla  is a monologue. It uses the visual sparingly (including it within manipulate would be pushing the definition of visual theatre), but as an effect counterpoint to the self-justifications that make up Andrea's explanations. Conversely, it is Ciara's lack of telling physicality that adds a layer to Duff's performance, since the self-control of the character is at the heart of her tragedy (she puts up with an unfaithful spouse and the legacy of her father's gangland empire and seedy deals).

Both Ridley and Harrower are exciting writers, and it is inevitable that their vision of theatre is based in the power of language - they are the proud and worthy successors of that particularly British tradition that sets the script as the template for theatre. But while Orla O’Loughlin's direction of Ciara could make an easy translation straight into audio, Dark Vanilla director David Mercatali recognises how even limited use of the body can add a nuance and power that evokes the darker forces at work beneath the presentation of self.

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