Blue Guitar Theatre utilise and build on extracts of Lord Byron’s Cain: A Mystery to explore ideas of death and religion in this dystopic drama. We follow Cain’s story as a disgruntled, unsettled young man, who is toiling over questions of mortality in an imagined world where armies have been abandoned and the population are unacquainted with the notion of death.
Cain is dissatisfied by his society’s summary of the process of death as merely a ‘slow, passing away’ and journeys with Lucy AKA Lucifer to find out what death really entails, even at the expense of his relationship with his partner, Adah. Cain’s brother, Abel, works for the government as a spin doctor for leader, Jehovah, and Cain is given the opportunity to work for his brother and their leader in a greater role. It is only through his investigative findings with Lucy however that the reality of death in his brother’s administration is brought to life before Cain’s eyes. It is the disconnect between the faith his brother maintains in this system, and the unavoidable reality that Cain witness that leads to the play’s violent and tragic conclusion.
The story is told through a constant switching back and forth between the excerpts from Byron’s classical verse and those from the company’s modern day re-telling. Writer-adaptors, Jesse Jaughton-Shaw and Kay Dent, create some interesting parallels between the world then and the world today that elucidate the paradigms in our understandings of death. Cain never ceases to question the accepted religious ideas of the time – instead of chastising his mother for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, he questions as to what other reason should knowledge have been made so accessible to the grasp of man in the first place.
One of the best scenes involves Cain confronting his brother, Abel, about the realities of the drone program that his government’s foreign policy involves. Though no soldiers are entered into battle, instead thousands of civilians are killed at random for their role in a war most of them didn’t know they were fighting. Abel responds that it is necessary for officials like himself to make those decisions on behalf of the unknowing population because otherwise they would be left with no interpretation but only facts and he envisages them as poor victims, “drowning in facts”.
The liveness of the storytelling falters, however, firstly, through the characters’ lines often functioning as explicit descriptions of the characters’ exact though processes, step-by-step. This leaves little to subtext and stifles the action, rendering the actors, themselves, superfluous to the advancing of the plot. The cast, themselves, provide some good moments but too often fall foul of the mistake, omnipotent in London’s theatre scene today, of not listening to fellow actors onstage and simply waiting for their own turn to speak. This made it harder to believe in the characters, most notably in the melodramatic death scene at the end, which included a cringeworthy fight scene that spoilt some of the company’s finer earlier work. The sound and lighting design was rough and ready and cost-effective but actually achieved exactly what was needed to handle the numerous scene transitions. The use of the space, props and equipment on what was clearly a shoestring budget should be commended.
This is a company that are intent on finding the enduring philsophical questions in the world we live in today and there are many moments where the issues raised by the play certainly do get the audience thinking. What can’t be denied is that the the production drags on, notwithstanding the trying heat of the sealed above-the-pub performance space. There are many lines that could be cut and more time could instead be afforded to exploring the engaging parallels and questions in the texts through clearer dramatic action onstage. Indeed it is through the liveness of theatre and performance that the human being’s obsession with mortality has been able to persist so sturdily through time. In blunting this liveness, one runs the risk of blunting the drama of death, itself.
Cain played at the Hope Theatre until 6 June. For more information and tickets, see http://www.thehopetheatre.com/