The Directors Festival from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, presented at The Wardrobe Theatre has grown ever bigger this year. Presented in two double bills a week over a fortnight, it’s a chance to gorge the future of the theatre industry, seeing works and ideas in direct discussion, mirrors and differences splayed out side by side. A caveat, in ensuring that the pieces run for about an hour, each piece has been condensed and chopped down, the importance of space and room for writing to breathe has been taken away, and consequently, there is a sped-up intensity about them. This works both for and against the pieces. It leaves the audience both dazzled and bombarded.
The strongest this week is Bryony Lavery’s Stockholm (****), given a production both sensual and terrifying in Sofia Gallucci’s excellently choreographed, lovingly conceived production. Kali (Phoebe Cook) and Todd (Joshua Hurley) appear to be the perfect couple filled with Bergman movie matinees, delicious dinners, and in-sync sexual compatibility. Yet Kali’s retro-jealousy and Todd’s distancing perfectionism hint that beneath the sheen lies a dark heart. Georgina Vasey’s clever design boxes them in with sleek Ikea fixtures, a lighting fixture above made up of wine glasses a clever tough. Cook and Hurley have believable chemistry as the couple; playful, intimate, and wounded, and generate a believable spark as their balletic sexual congruences turn violent and the characters hurtle towards doom. Both likable, both detestable, the audible gasps that rocked the auditorium told its own story of an audience trapped as an observer in a relationship that can only end in tragedy. Stockholm, a city that can be both bathed in permanent sunshine or permanent darkness depending on the season is a powerful metaphor for a couple who contain both but can’t escape the pull of each other.
If Stockholm catches you right in the gut, there is more distance added in Martin Crimp’s elliptical but intriguing The City (***). Like a modern-day surrealist, Crimp’s play follows its own trajectory, spinning itself into different variations, one that is open to multiple readings. It’s a play about urban angst, about the claustrophobia of living on top of each other, of living a genteel life while anarchy bubbles just under the surface. With the war in the West at its most confronting since the 40s elements of this play feel more pertinent now, but it stubbornly doesn’t allow its spectators to get a handle on it. It’s a work loaded with great lines and a real writer’s sureness but it’s got a touch of the late Pinter about it, a sense of playing it smart rather than releasing the fury. Aaron Finnegan’s production has a sense of play, especially in the hands of the brilliant Alex Crook, whose every utterance finds a new and surprising colour and whose control as the character slips into ennui over the course of a monologue is a masterclass in physical comedy. This is evidence of the production’s best element, excellent actors giving detailed and thorough performances, Camilla Aiko whose poise and command suggest a star in the making rubs up against Rhea Norwood’s saucer-eyed and excitable Nurse, whose recent turn in Netflix’s new hit-show Heartstopper suggests she already is one. Meanwhile, Monsikelah Ward is all goofy smiling endearment as the girl whose very existence, like the rest of the characters is called into question in the play’s final moments. Four actors in search of a play?
Night one was all about tackling the classics as two of the great works from Great Britain and Australia came under the microscope. Lowri Mathias’ production of Picnic At Hanging Rock (***) may have been shaky in its use of Australian accents but on much more steady ground in its build-up of stifling atmosphere. Joan Lindsay’s quintessential 60’s novel became an iconic 70’s film and then a successful 2016 theatre production as adapted by Tom White for the Australian company Malthouse. It places in opposition the genteel colonialism of Britain against the wild rugged landscapes of Australia. Young women brought up to be prim discovering their sexual identities against a rising bubble of hysteria. Has the world changed as much as we might think? The original novel caught the attention by making people think that the fiction was not. There is almost a documentary feel to White’s adaption, similar in structure to The Laramie Project, actors blending from teacher into student, from one girl to another, from female to man, monologues bleeding into duologues, into group incantations. Matthew Cassar ’s design sees school desks becoming ragged hills, Hannah Bracegirdle’s sound design ominously builds up the tension and it even contains a jump scare or two, the hardest effect to pull off in the theatre. Yet its speed of light delivery sometimes works against its clarity though particularly powerful performances from Tanvi Virmani and Rebecca Hyde ground it in quality.
Tackling Hamlet (***) in an hour as your thesis project is a particularly brave move but expect plenty of bold moves from director Yuxuan Liu moving forward. If anything, this Dane should have been even braver. There is something in Liu’s visual language that thrills, his pre-set as Hamlet sits on the floor, a cat’s cradle in red pulling him tighter into the corruption of the court, his play within a play being given as drawings on a projector, the interesting doubles that allow Yazmin Kayani’s gravedigger to vanish from their cloak into the body of Ophelia revealed to a broken Hamlet. His take on the play allows us to feel the world through its visual language. It’s so strong a lifeforce that you want to see him worry less about the play’s narrative linear and find something more collage-like. The piece ends with Ophelia taking ownership of ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ but what other delights could lie there? Its power lies in its visual poetry, not its textual, its playing style more caricature than flesh and blood. Shivam Pallana gives us a melancholic Prince but the flatness never erupts into passion or humour. Yet there is enough potential here to suggest something special could be about to arise from Liu. I look forward to seeing what comes next.