Children of Fate opens with a sense of anticipation. A man huddled next to the remains of a fire in an oil drum, while a body stirs and whimpers under a pile of rags beside him. For an uncomfortably long time, director Robert Shaw has his actors hold this tension, requiring us to wait for something to happen. Here, he neatly captures the emptiness and frustration of the piece’s homeless, poor and disenfranchised characters: sitting around, in the cold, waiting for something to happen to them. Children of Fate encapsulates the powerlessness of poverty – too often, the only certain thing to wait for is death.
Juan Radrigan’s incisive piece cracks open some important issues, and asks difficult questions without providing answers. The play shows us the chance relationship between Marta (Sian Reese Williams), and Emilio (Dan MacLane), after he drags her from a nearby canal, saving her from drowning. Their conversation is interrupted by the bizarre, otherworldly Aurelio (Julia Tarnoky), who – prophet-like – speaks in riddles. We learn a little of what brought Marta and Emilio to the curious, transitional no man’s land in which we find them. Did Marta throw herself into the canal, or was she pushed? What and who has Emilio left behind? Finally, an altercation with disaffected security guard Miguel (Offue Okegbe) brings the piece to a violent conclusion.
There are some moments of brilliance in this piece. Sian Reese Williams’s Marta is sensitively judged and truthfully played. She brings a realistic, vulnerable grubbiness to the character which is immensely satisfying and difficult to achieve. Too often, it is hard to suspend disbelief that a well-cared for, well-kempt actor with a dirtied-down overcoat is homeless, but Reese Williams shows us a Marta who looks like she has been sleeping rough for weeks. This damaged character with her broken, barely-surviving idealism is the strongest thing in this piece, and Reece Williams gives an exciting, febrile and extremely watchable performance.
The others are serviceable, but patchy. Okegbe shines when inhabiting Miguel’s defiant, pent-up rage, but is less convincing when he is more conversational. MacLane’s dour Emilio is proficient but uninspiring, and it is difficult to care about his journey in the same way we care for Marta. Julia Tarnoky has a huge challenge with the lunatic Aurelio. This performance did not quite work for me. Tarnoky creates an electric physicality, but she is vocally all over the place and her madness felt oddly demonstrative – but this lies with the part rather than the playing of it.
The insurmountable problem with the piece is the translation and adaptation, which did not work for me. It is knotty, difficult to follow, and the register is confused. Too often, the characters’ speech oscillates between the highly colloquial and the weirdly highfaluting. When Miguel declares, “I am not a piece of shit!”, it sounds contrived and a little clumsy. Much of the dialogue does not sound like spoken language. It would be very interesting to see another translation of the same piece – somewhere in there, there is a powerful story.
Translator Robert Shaw also directs and, by and large, he handles the stage well. The characters move restively around the transitional playing space, beautifully and simply designed by Gillian Argo. The simple device of water dripping into buckets at the back of the stage pleasurably evokes the dank, unwelcoming area in which Emilio and Marta set up camp. The wide, bare stretch of stage at the Bussey Building is an excellent choice for the piece. Its stripped-down aesthetic chimes well with the material, and the several homeless people I passed on the short walk from Peckham Rye demonstrate the genuine pertinence of its message.
And yet, in this translation, this message remains obscure, unclear and difficult to follow. This is a great shame, and perhaps in another translator’s hands, this could be a great piece. It does not sustain its audience’s attention for the full 85 minutes. However, Reese Williams is highly compelling, and there are moments of truth and intensity in her relationship with Emilio. A mixed evening, attempting but not quite delivering a powerful punch.
Children of Fate runs at the Bussey Building until 24 November. To book tickets and further information visit the Bussey Building website.