Feeling the pulse of new writing and presenting this generation’s exciting, emerging theatre makers, the Bush Theatre’s annual festival RADAR takes on its fourth year and dips into the themes, artists and stories we need to look out for. Their double-bill Blank by Nassim Soleimanpour and If I Were Me by award-winning company Antler reflects on identity and compassion in a world that seems to be losing track of both.
Blank is a story made up on the spot. No one knows the script – fragments of an audience member’s life is revealed and rearranged and offers a thought on the future, on life and the importance of the present moment. Getting yourself along to an improvised show like this can either be an epic fail and hours of dry, awkward torment, or a strange but wonderful feeling of being alive in the moment and part of something that can never be repeated. Blank is all about the latter. Sharing something that will only happen once. It tells us life isn’t rehearsed, that it consists of little moments unique to us, all coming together to form our unique existence.
The playwright has masterly constructed our night of revelation and empathy by leaving simple gaps in the text. This night actor Paul Hunter had the task of reading out the script (for the very first time) and, with our help, fill in the gaps of what was the beginning of a new story. Then, as improvised shows love to do, an audience member was dragged into the mixture and asked to fill in the blanks with memories from her own life, feelings of the present, and hopes for her future. Though the script was very simple in its construction and not dramatically exciting in itself, somehow the fragmented life-story of this one audience member became something incredibly uplifting and life-affirming, with a feeling of togetherness that “passive” theatre lacks.
By experiencing the mixture of the playwright’s direction, Hunter’s warm delivery and the audience’s suggestions, Blank created a compassionate feeling in the room which we desperately need at times like this, in a world full of division. No judgement, just openness to the possibilities of a person’s story and life. By just hanging this evening’s main character’s answers on a washing line, her life became a story in itself, an idea so simple but yet so moving when executed. Theatre is all about telling stories after all, and as Nassim Soleimanour so rightly says in his script, everyone carries an important story, stories playwrights are dying to get their hands on. Blank is the perfect opportunity to celebrate that. I entered feeling a little down about it all, and I left feeling inspired, full of warmth and joy at having shared a moment with strangers who were all excited about sharing this one person’s life. Kids should do this in school and hopefully value each other and their own stories a bit more.
Similarly – but not as effectively – does If I Were Me ask us the question of identity and what makes our story. Phillip is as noticeable as air and seems to be living in the wallpaper of his office. Struggling to find his own voice and identity in the highly competitive and aggressive advertising jungle, he tries to edit his own life into something a bit more ‘right’. But who is he supposed to become? And can you become someone else if you’re not sure if you really exist or not? Antler is a young company full of sparks, humour and thoughtfulness. If I Were Me has moments of delicacy where you want to cry your heart out for Phillip, and moments when the characters’ behaviour onstage seems plastic and inhuman in its destruction of him. Including us in the bullying of him, it becomes almost a test of the audience’s empathic capability – will we step in and help Phillip or laugh at him? Sadly we aim towards the latter and become part of the cold, performance-driven environment he’s finding so hard to be a part of.
Phillip is played with heart and brilliant conviction, and all performers support each other as a very dynamic ensemble, being excitingly movement based and playing with different levels of analysis. The simplicity of the set is efficient and increasingly inventive but there are a few musical hiccups on the way, and though the performances are good and especially moving from our Phillip, we lose track a little of what the play really wants us to feel. Is it about identity and how we try to mould ourselves in any fashion so we are more presentable? A better product in the eyes of the world? Or is it really exposing the lack of compassion even we as audience members have sometimes? It does raise some important questions with humbleness and intelligence and, as a new writing night, RADAR showcases some really important young talent in an evening that’s well constructed and truly fascinating at times.
RADAR Festival is playing at the Bush Theatre until 26 November. For more information and tickets, see the Bush Theatre.