Review: Freeman, Bristol Old Vic

A blank screen looms behind, and ripples line the surface: a river frozen over. We watch six figures clamber, grunt, spit and strain, bending and forming violent vignettes made from their bodies and searing into the empty space – each body a living memorial of a legacy of racial oppression.

Their hazy shadows dance against the paralysed ripples; silhouettes of the past bubble under the surface. The accompanying and evocative tingling of piano keys falls away, and these living memorials burst out into the present moment, rescued from the amnesias of rushing time and into storytelling life centre stage. Winner of a Spirit of the Fringe Award and shortlisted for Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award, Strictly Arts flood into the Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio with Freeman in order to weave together six stories from across history, which each hopes to address the relationship between mental health and systemic racism.

Through physical theatre, music, dance, shadow puppetry, poetry and storytelling, the six strong cast blur the boundaries between then and now, telling the stories from 1800 to the present day, including the true tales of Michael Bailey, David Oluwale and Sarah Reed. The company are here to demonstrate that, while time tumbles forward, oppressive and violent historical legacies nevertheless seep through and poisonously permeate the surface of the present.

The company illustrates these stories through a wealth of innovative means; the cast are particularly spellbinding in their collective strength. Slick physical theatre mixes with technical design to represent the unsettling horror of lynching, imprisonment, oppressed determination, comprising both the physical and mental pain of social struggle. Abstracted moments of physical rawness and prowess give a visceral and urgent weight to the strain of history.

Yet the saturation of creative techniques deployed by Strictly Arts, while a testament to their considerable talent, also works to cloud the clarity of each narrative; the poignancy and nuance of the stories are obscured by theatrical busyness, weighed down further by an overly didactic script. As real-life stories are propelled and transmuted through different theatrical forms, I start to lose track of who plays which character as well as the era we are in. The specificity of each storyline is sacrificed in favour of theatrical spectacle, and I lose a sense of the show’s aim; the threads that stitch each narrative together fray at the edges.

Formal theatrical elements like song, dance, puppetry and projected slides have, over the course of the twentieth-century, theoretically worked to distance the audience from the action on stage. The instigation of alienation hopes to lead to critical engagement, a sense of creative liberation through which the audience can reflect on the wider social context that allows these oppressive narratives of systemic racism to reoccur.

Yet I can’t help but feel like these Brechtian tropes have now run their course, and, in Freeman, they feel especially tired and gratuitous in trying to meaningfully uphold the scale of the problem the show tackles. While I am given distance, I am then left out in orbit and, ironically, I feel I lose connection to any overarching sense of social urgency.

Equally, the volume of the violence is so intense and bombarding, I feel myself becoming numb to the impact. I consider whether this may be part of the point: physical and social violence against the black community are so deeply rooted in today’s world that these screams lose their meaning. But with the boundary between life and artificial art still firmly secured, I find myself not knowing what to do with what I see. I want to feel away a few layers of theatrical artifice to get to the heart of this matter.

Strictly Arts achieves what it set out to do – it successfully argues that we must not depoliticise the violence that is still inflicted against the BAME community at a disproportionately high rate. Freeman firmly resists the ease and influence of enlightenment rhetoric: that things really do get better with time. By historicising racism as a systemic phenomenon, through the live immediacy and intimacy of the black body, they establish that our record is broken. The content is legitimate, but I don’t feel that the weight of its guts is done justice by the outdated skeleton of its form. It is time we try to find new ways to recalibrate the bounds of theatrical encounter, so that urgent social considerations are no longer carried in a rusting vessel.

Freeman played The Weston Studio at Bristol Old Vic until 25 May. For more information see the Bristol Old Vic website.