first night

Durham Drama Festival 2013 - Day 3

Kenneth Chan views the penultimate evening of Durham Drama Festival.

The third night of the Durham Drama Festival 2013 had three plays on the cards. It was unfortunate that the third play, Theresa by Julia Pascal, was cancelled, but the others, Island State by Dom Riley and Charles on Charles Bridge by Cordelia Young, made for an intensely introspective evening for any theatre-goer.

Island State by Dom Riley

Josie (Elissa Churchill) and Marilyn (Grace Cheatle) are the only two survivors on the tiny little island of Great Britain after the environmental catastrophe of the melting of the ice caps. The synopsis of the play available on the programme offers it as a 'quirky comedy', but I perceive that it may be more accurately described as theatre of the absurd. There were indeed elements of the comedic, which provoked chuckles in the audience, but the humour was not light – it couldn't be in a situation of inevitable doom – but rather absurd, highlighting the ultimate meaninglessness of existence.

It is clear from the start that Josie's overly cheerful and sensitive personality and compassionate nature is incompatible with, even diametrically opposed to, Marilyn's pragmatic, realistic, intense character. Marilyn's weariness and the ruthlessness that allowed her to survive this long is intensely visible in Cheatle’s tightly controlled performance, which reminded me of a snake with its hidden power and that lethargy characteristic of a predator. However, in a way, it seems to be Josie who presents the more dangerous character. Despite her trust in the goodness of people and overwhelming optimism, Josie is not naive. While Churchill's performance did not particularly stand out to me, it was an almost flawless delivery of the kind of cheerfulness that is often chosen as the mask of a character who could potentially snap at any moment. Both Churchill and Cheatle were able to overcome the limitations of space presented by the platforms used to represent the shrinking island, bar minor woes. Beautiful effects of the sand, the shrinking island stage, and the appropriate choice of music and image slideshow between acts completed the performance.

Despite their differences, both characters reveal themselves as neurotic products of societal and parental conditioning. They are unable to let go of their past identities, and try to live along the same guidelines that governed their past lives. As a result, it is impossible for them to get along, escalating until physical violence breaks out in Act 2, representative of the irrational but all too troubling reality of society sometimes turning within against itself when outside danger bears down on it, rather than facing that outside danger united. A little disappointingly, however, the expected destructive end, anticipated by the aggression of Act 2 and the death threat in Act 3, never comes. Dramatic tension dissipates, perhaps in a way impotently. The lights fade on Josie and Marilyn as they embrace and look to the future – of inevitable doom? Dom Riley encourages us to believe in the strength of human hope and human companionship.

Charles on Charles Bridge by Cordelia Yeung

This conceptually ambitious play stars Lucy Hart and Rob Collins as a young couple who meet once a year in Prague, at the same time on the same Wednesday on the bridge where they first met. The set consists simply of a street lamp and a bench on downstage left: a lamp, a bench, a meeting place – simply effective. The rest of the stage floor is not left empty, however: the crackle of leaves on the ground, the large blue crescent-moon on the screen covering the back wall, added a touch of realism, and a sprinkling of autumn.

Beautiful movements across the stage seem to represent the passage of time year by year in this one-act play, as well as physically representing the dance, or the "game", of love. Haunting music played by a live string quartet arrayed upstage provides an atmosphere of reflection that is echoed in Hart's and Collins's tones of nostalgia. While the music generally added to the performance, however, there were times when the words of the young man and woman are partially sunken in the background music; sitting in the middle of the middle row in the Assembly Room, I lost chunks of speech, which would confuse me for the rest of the particular segments of dialogue. When, near the end, the man compares the string music to the incessant whine of a washing machine, I almost agreed.

Some lines sounded perhaps awkwardly corny, enough that it raises the question of, How well has the script been translated onto stage? Charles on Charles Bridge is full of intense emotion but the audience never gets a chance to bond with the characters, nor do the characters get the chance to become real, fleshed-out people. It was a little disappointing because I feel that this play has such potential that, overall, I get the impression that it is a mere preview of some larger narrative. I can only hope playwright Cordelia Yeung reads this and writes that expansion.

Kenneth Chan

23 February 2013

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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