If the National Theatre’s Double Feature 1 (read Lois Jeary’s review here) captures a new side of the National Theatre in this recently unseen backstage area (the Paintframe is normally seen by scenic artists working on painting some of the elaborate sets that grace the National’s three stages), then Double Feature 2 which performs on alternate nights captures a real sense of excitement. It is true that walking into the Paintframe, accompanied by the live ‘Paintframe Band’, is somewhat of a performance itself – a makeshift bar, a viewing platform, and the smudges of years of paint that glisten on every surface. It is a treat that is worth capturing, even more so that Double Feature 2 presenting Nightwatchman and There is a War, seems to bring out a real excitement of work that I’ve rarely seen before at the National. It’s young, fresh and fits perfectly within this new performing space.
Nightwatchman by Prasanna Puwanarajah is a monologue performed courageously and tirelessly by Stephanie Street who plays Abirami, an stereotype-breaking Sri Lankan girl who is playing cricket for England at Lords. The setting for Nightwatchman is a cricket training hall, in which a machine fires invisible cricket balls at Street who continually bats them into the abyss beyond. At times clever production tricks see the balls hitting lamps, or crashing into parts of the Paint Frame – all rather magically. It’s impressive and furthers the engagement of the piece, which, whilst rigorous and demanding for Street to deliver, does at times fall into topics that I am unfamiliar with, cricket being the main bemusement for me.
Puwanarajah’s text flows effortlessly with Street, and the narrative twists to show the ball-throwing machine to represent the strain of having a father scared by the more traditional family members whose links to martydom are troubling. The text also explores the darker side of Sri Lanka’s history of the struggles with the Tamil people, the war that is waged internally, a blood-feud that never seems to end. Puwanarajah explores these dark truths superbly with Nightwatchman, juxtaposing the British-ness of cricket with the slaughtering of innocent families.
Street is both brutal and determined as Abirami, delivering not only an excellent monologue but a continuous delivery of bat-swinging triumphs as she fends off the invisible cricket balls. Soutra Gilmour’s tight staging of the cricket training makes it difficult for Street to be versatile within the confides, but Polly Findlay manages to match the energy within the text with the direction. Overall a striking performance, although I do have a few doubts about how easily accessible Nightwatchman is without the prior knowledge of Sri Lanka.
If Nightwatchman leans towards the honesty of feuds between a country of traditions, then Tom Basden’s There is a War, blows it apart with an expertly comical look at how warfare and conflict are nothing more than an absurd use of power. A war is raging between the Blues and the Greys, and Anne (Phoebe Fox) is joining the Blues as a doctor seeking to assist those who have fallen in battle. Anne confronts the absurdity of warfare where men deliver orders based solely on cost, where the shades of blue and grey are so similar that they are practically one team , and where mankind seems oblivious to the insensitivity and value of life itself. There is a War is a witty and poignant play, that exposes the stupidity of warfare.
There is much to be admired in Basden’s writing, which seems to brilliantly capture the strange idea of man fighting man. It becomes something of a farce at times, when generals give orders that the dead must be buried together to give the impression they are killing more of the enemy, or where Anne is captured and tortured because they mistake her for a Grey solider (faulty sunglasses are blamed). As a whole There is a War is wonderfully executed, and when performed in the Paint Frame the height and depth for the performance seems to fit perfectly when boxes fall from the sky, or a hospital rather eerily appears from a wall by a drop down bridge.
Fox, as the determined Anne, is a joy to watch, and There is a War features a whole ensemble of talented and amusing characters of soldiers and generals. Yet it’s not just Basden’s text which powers the performance on; coupled with Gilmour’s quirky design which mirrors the various objects on the improvised war map the General looms over in a comically large fashion in the performance space, you really get a sense of just how ridiculous the whole thing is. But that is the point, Basden’s text mirrors the external world and allows us to view it within an exaggerated form to make us realise just how shocking we can be as a society or indeed those who support military dominance.
Double Feature is for me what the National Theatre really needed this summer to show that whilst it might have some of the most well-respected theatre makers, writers and performers on it stages, they equally have the adventurous and playful excitement that comes with working with emerging artists. Double Feature‘s programme notes that the project is funded by the Young Patrons of the National Theatre, and it is understandable why; this pop-up theatre offers something far more accessible than the tradional grey-clad seats of the Olivier or Lyettleton. It brings the excitement back into the experience of attending the theatre, and has done so with some astonishingly good new pieces of writing and directing. From the moment you walk into the Paintframe you get a completely different insight into the work of the National Theatre. It proves that sometimes it’s worth bringing your work out of its normal restraints to find the play and excitement once more.
Double Feature 2 is playing in the National Theatre’s Paint Frame until 10th September. You can also read a review of Double Feature 1 here. Tickets can be brought via the National Theatre’s website.