Thursday, 8 March 2018

Windows - Theatre Review

Written by: Ayse Bayramoglu
Directed and designed by: Lloyd Jones
Performed by: Sandra Chui, Anna Ellis, Faith Karakas, and Zac Kazepis
Stage Managed by: Laura Barnes

Anna Ellis and Zac Kazepis - Photo by Darren Green
Sometimes the most powerful pieces of theatre can be found in the most unassuming places and Windows, which is now playing at La Mama Theatre, is one of those experiences. Combining the writing of Bayramoglu with the direction of Jones is perhaps one of the most unexpected pairing I have seen in a long time and the evening brought people to tears.

I am not saying the production is perfect...but maybe it is... I can't really say too much because I risk giving a major spoiler and I do not want to do that, but I will do my best to talk about what has me so excited about Windows.

The play itself is a seething, unrelenting mass of despair and hopelessness. Bayramoglu's writing is as unforgiving as life itself. Riffing on the idea of fairytales and seeing the world through rose tinted glasses, two young people (the age is a little confusing but I would guess pre-teen) play the game 'Windows' where one of them would pretend to look out of (or into) a window and see scene and then describe it. 

Esme (Ellis) is poor and abused and Huso (Kazepis) is not. He is in love with her, she is not in love with him. She stinks, he is clean. He can give her things she needs, she won't give him things he wants. Instead she looks for work. This is possibly where the age gets confusing because I don't know at what age children can start working in Turkey (Bayramoglu is Turkish).

The script is dark and powerful and perhaps not surprising, but the impact towards the end was there for all of us to see as Jones (director) had us sitting in a square around the tiny stage space, unable to hide from each other as the truths are revealed. Even as the children are looking through real and imaginary windows we are looking into each others eyes, into the windows of each others souls.

Jones is determined to keep us constantly aware of ourselves and each other throughout this performance and he uses an exciting and intriguing myriad of techniques to do so. If you follow my writing you will have heard me refer to traditional performances spaces as dark prison theatres. The audience has to sit in darkness, in regimented rows looking nowhere but straight forward. You are not allowed to move, or cough, or talk, or fidget, or check your phone because that would be a crime. The basis of this belief is that if everyone's complete and undivided attention is not solely on the stage we won't 'get' the art and the willing suspension of disbelief will be broken.

Brecht said balderdash, I say balderdash, and apparently Jones says balderdash too. I think I'm in love with him!

Whilst entering the space, and with Jones constantly saying "shhh", the audience crunches and chuckles their way to their seats. It is impossible to comply with his instruction then or at any time during the show because the floor is strewn with dried pasta. As soon as a foot moves there is noise. My favourite moment was a delightful irruption of reality when a guide dog started eating the pasta, crunching happily and noisily. And then of course we had the poor owner trying to quieten the dog and keep it in line. It was perfection.

Why it was wonderful rather than disruptive was because Jones had already given the audience permission to be real people in the space. Being quiet and hidden, not existing in the room was not something Jones allowed for one second. As a theatre maker (and someone with a similarly leaning bent) I understood what was happening but I also enjoyed watching and hearing audience members who didn't recognise the artifacts.

What worked the best was that as an audience we actually had to work harder to engage with the story. We had to activate ourselves rather than being passive bystanders who can sit back and disconnect and at the point in the story it was most important, it shone a laser beam with a strength beyond anything I have experienced.

It wasn't just Jones' audience set up which made it work though. He had the actors using hyper-real acting which usually drives me crazy. In this instance though, it acted to force the audience to work harder and to find their own way into the tales being told which is probably why I got to see grown men weep. I doubt if this would have occurred if the audience had been allowed to be passive watchers.

The main bug bear for me is the whole thing is too long. At 2 hours with no interval it could easily have been cut by 30 minutes. Some of it is the direction - there are long breaks in the performance which, whilst essential to the technique, could be shortened - and part of it is the writing (or perhaps the translation?).

Bayramoglu's play seems oddly circuitous and repetitious. I wondered if this was a nod to pre-writing storytelling techniques, but it doesn't work very well and the repetitions aren't clear about providing new information if this is the case.

Also, the text swings wildly between being overtly literal and overtly obscure, sometimes in the same sentence. It left me asking questions about why not be explicit about this when you are being explicit about that? There is a key moment when the obscurity made me angry because I feel theatre is about giving people language to speak about their experiences and Bayramoglu (or the translation) drops the ball big time when it matters most.

I cannot tell you more than I have. You really do have to experience this for yourself. Many of you will hate the very things I love about it, but I doubt if very many of you will ever have seen or heard some of the great ideas in this production of Windows. Beware though, this will hurt. Not every fairytale ends with 'happily ever after'. Does anyone's?

4 stars

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