Friday, 9 August 2019

Theatre Review: Directors' Festival 2019 (Orange Tree)

The Mikvah Project (Photo: Robert Day)

This is the third year that the Orange Tree has run its Directors' Festival, which presents the work of graduates from St. Mary's University's MA Theatre Directing course over a week of performances. As Paul Miller has previously noted, "director training is part of the OT's DNA," and the initiative has its roots in the long-running Directors' Showcase seasons of Sam Walters' tenure, when the theatre's trainees staged such seldom-seen plays as Caryl Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke and Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, which featured future Hamlet Paapa Essiedu in a galvanising turn. 

This year, the four plays presented are, once again, all contemporary works, ones that, via a series of excellent designs by the enterprising team of Cory Shipp, Chris McDonnell (lighting) and Lex Kosanke (sound), transport the audience from the Portuguese capital to the mindscapes of a love-seeking man and woman, from mountain tops to a Mikvah bath. 

The latter is the location for Josh Azouz's The Mikvah Project, which, with a surprising amount of humour, unfolds a love story between two very different Jewish men who meet every Friday to take part in the religious ritual of water submersion. Avi is a married thirtysomething trying for a child with his wife, while Eitan is an Arsenal-loving 17-year-old. As the men talk and bond, mutual attraction surfaces, which Eitan is keen to act on. 

As a portrait of gay desire struggling with culture, The Mikvah Project suggests a Jewish Brokeback Mountain or, more aptly, a companion to the excellent 2009 Israeli film Eyes Wide Open. Shipp's set opens a pool in the OT floor which the actors slip into and out of. At such moments, Georgia Green's audience-inclusive production creates a palpable erotic tension, while also indulging some broad comedy, especially in a manic and very funny Alicante-set interlude. Grace notes are found in the well-judged performances, with Dylan Mason capturing Eitan's ardency and Robert Neumark Jones touchingly conveying Avi's conflicts. 

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Photo: Robert Day) 

A more caustic take on modern relationships is offered in Declan Greene's Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, which presents a hook-up between a nurse and an IT worker - each with their own problems. (He's a miserably married porn addict, and she a debt-ridden shopaholic.) It's more "meet desperate" than "meet cute," and the fantastic opening scene captures the relentlessness and absurdity of needy online interactions with wince-inducing perceptiveness. 

The bluntness of the title carries over into much of the dialogue, which Cate Hamer and Matthew Douglas deliver with aplomb, getting a great rhythm going. Nothing revelatory is said about the way in which technology feeds on and frustrates the human need for intimacy. But, with crackling bursts of static and illumination, Gianluca Lello's sharp and intelligent production makes wonderfully dynamic a play which, like The Mikvah Project, tends to (over-)rely on to-audience narration rather than the creation of dramatic scenes. 

Pilgrims (Photo: Robert Day)

The other two plays in the festival are engaging three-handers. Elinor Cook's Pilgrims offers a feminist take on (male) wanderlust and folk song, with Nicholas Armfield and Luke MacGregor as two dedicated climbers and Adeyinka Akinrinade as the PhD student who, in conventional parlance, "comes between them." Armfield and MacGregor convey an affectionate, but also tense and competitive, bond and Akinrinade moves compellingly from sparkiness to disappointment as the girl who gives up her own dream for theirs. 

Mythological and archetypal resonances are incorporated with a slightly heavy hand, but Ellie Goodall's production is fluid and sensitive, negotiating temporal and location shifts with elegant economy (plus some lovely a capella folk singing by the cast), and giving the production a mystical undertone. Signposted from the outset, the outcome seems predictable, but the play twists in an unexpected direction in the subversive and exceptionally well-played final scene. 

Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes (Photo: Robert Day)  

The most obviously dazzling and surprising of the four productions is Wiebke Green's take on Tiago Rodrigues' Sadness and Joy in the Life of Giraffes. The premise of this play - the imaginative odyssey of a 9-year-old across Lisbon, accompanied by her teddy bear (named Judy Garland) - sounds like the height of preciousness. But, belying its overt playful qualities, Rodrigues' writing (presented here in a fine poetic/profane translation by Mark O'Thomas) turns out to have plenty of bite, and succeeds in confounding the viewer at every turn. "Judy Garland" (a hilarious, bear-suited Nathan Welsh), for one, has suicidal tendencies, a Ted-ish vocabulary and attitude to spare, while the play itself has decidedly complex things to say about loss and the relationship of language to experience. 

Green keeps the proceedings fleet, funny and physical throughout, with the great Gyuri Sarossy multi-tasking superbly as "The Man Who Is My Father" and all the other blokes encountered on the journey. (Including Chekhov!) But ultimately the evening belongs to Eve Ponsonby who gives a sublime and exhilarating performance as the smarty pants, dictionary-devouring heroine who has more to learn about life and language than she realises. A brilliant and barmy trip, Green's hugely enjoyable production makes the viewer wish for more Portuguese plays - and certainly more plays by Rodrigues - on the UK stage. 

The Directors' Festival runs until 11 August. Further information and booking details here

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