The latest addition to the growing canon of dramas inspired by last summer’s riots is Mottled Lines, the debut play by Archie W. Maddocks, which closes out this year’s Orange Tree season with a short (just eight performances) run at the theatre this week. A member of the Orange Tree’s recently-established writer’s group, Maddocks originally developed Mottled Lines as a “response” to the play that opened last year’s season, Václav Havel’s The Conspirators. But it’s clear that the piece has become very much its own, distinctive thing. What I find most admirable about Mottled Lines is its avoidance of fact-ratcheting, pseudo-journalistic, verbatim schtick. Eschewing mere reportage, Maddocks’s approach here is at once direct and oblique. His play takes the form of a series of monologues delivered to the audience by five “archetypal” figures who offer their viewpoints on the causes and the fallout of a set of events referred to simply as “the incidents.” Henry Bell’s production thus makes for a potent end to an Orange Tree season that’s dexterously whisked us from contemporary Muswell Hill to St. John Hankin’s England and Amiri Baraka’s America, via excursions into Crimp-land and the WWI trenches, only to land us back in our own present moment, with some pressing problems to face.
Maddocks’s thesis - that the riots developed from a breakdown in communication between social groups that lead to a pervasive (and still-spreading) climate of fear - is far from startling. And at times the characters’ endless eloquence (I don’t know about you, but I tend to flinch when terms like “ideology” and “hegemony” turn up in plays, somehow) becomes wearisome. But at its best, Maddocks’s writing has force, surprise and conviction. And, gaining from the intimacy of the Orange Tree space, the monologue form feels just right for a piece that’s deeply concerned with failures in communication and their results. The playwright has written some memorable arias of blame, accusation and self-vindication for his quintet of protagonists, who present their views in speeches that combine elements of harangue, confession, sermon and poetic reflection.
These soliloquies are vibrantly delivered by an accomplished cast who manage to bring some shades of particularity - and the odd subversive touch - to the archetypes that they’re embodying. Alert to the power of language and its abuses, The Fear (stunning Charles Mnene) articulates a pervasive and politicised sense of social disenfranchisement; for him, the desire to “take a little bit extra” is simply the natural consequence of many years of deprivation. Hipflask in his briefcase, Steven Elder catches precisely his politician’s mixture of insecurity and arrogant entitlement; for him, “taking a little bit extra” is a deserved benefit for a lifetime of hard work. As The Wolf, Gabeen Khan slickly and even sweetly spins utterly alarming theories regarding “those who are clogging up the gears of our country.” Akiya Henry imbues The Sparkle with her customary vibrancy and emotional transparency. (The play might benefit from a second female character, however.) And Michael Elkin’s aggressive, angry copper - big on animal analogies - gets some of the strongest moments here, especially an electric encounter with The Thug, in which he deconstructs the latter’s “urban ensemble” - trainers, baggy trousers, hoodie, scarf - as cultural signifier.
Bell’s intelligent, crisp production, which has the actors occasionally taking a pew to address specific audience members directly, keeps the mood charged, taut and urgent. The pessimism of the payoff feels pat, but there’s enough good stuff here to make Maddocks’s next work an exciting prospect. And to make you hope that Mottled Lines itself might have a further life.
Further information at the Orange Tree website.