The room is soaked in a cold, blue hue. A young woman cradles a bouquet as she drops to her knees. Like a lonely child lining up her toys, she begins to lower each rose to the ground. A particular flower takes her eye. She studies the life wilting quietly before her, one hand wrapped around its scrawny neck, the other reaching for the blade of the scissors.
In the next instant, a wave of warm, comforting orange gushes across the stage. Suddenly, we are dropped right into the living room of jovial young couple, known only as He (Gabriel Akuwudike) and She (Jessica Webber). The director’s ability to play with lighting is so acute that it becomes almost a role within itself, signalling crucial changes to both tone and time period. The colour code is hardly a brainteaser: blue for past, orange for present; cold for sorrow, warm for joy. Yet as our characters’ situation becomes increasingly desperate, we watch as even the brightest of moments become shrouded in a choking, blue haze.
Kinder K engages a topic that feels somewhat misplaced in the context of theatre: gene technology. Nevertheless, a vibrant opening draws the audience in close. Various juxtapositions pull us back in time to 1939, repeatedly stranding us in wartime Germany. In the first, He is seen begging a doctor to put an end to a dreaded and constant source of pain, a shame He and his wife talk about in no kind terms: their terribly deformed, most likely blind, son. When their doctor refuses to end the life of a baby, the new parents compose a harrowingly blunt letter to someone who is only too happy to help. A chilling new era of ‘ethnic cleansing’ is just beginning.
Back in 2017, an achingly familiar story is unravelling. She is pregnant, but a prenatal screening reveals that something is not right. Now, it is not the government, but a woman’s own personal fear that will determine whether an irreparably sick child belongs in this world.
With his whirlwind journey into the tangle of morals and eugenics, writer Kristofer Grønskag certainly crams in a host of challenging scenes and imagery. The dialogue surges with a modern kick and, avoiding a trap into which too many shows so hopelessly fall, seeks not to patronise the audience with rudimentary exposition.
The actors, however, barely have time to come up for air. At odds with the countless, rapid scene changes, the two-strong cast relies on slight costume changes and personality shifts to demonstrate the switch between characters. While a brave move, this for me is one of the show’s greatest downfalls. Even the addition of a further two characters would maintain the show’s simple and intimate appeal, while offering the audience a breath of relief from the same two voices. Not that Akuwudike and Webber don’t deliver; their modern style and relentless energy prevents the show from falling limp at any moment. Sadly, tasking one actor with so many different personalities will often lead to accidental overlap and ultimate audience confusion.
Immediately following the play, a live debate ensued, aiming to further explore the ‘impacts and ethics of gene technologies’. Participants included Grønskag himself, director Camilla Gürtler, Jane Fisher, of ARC (Antenatal Results and Choices), and Colette Lloyd, Down Syndrome Research Foundation. Grønskag began by taking us through the origin of the play, describing it at one point as ‘not a fish, but a sea urchin’, and later explained how much of his writing was based on real stories. Coming from largely opposing backgrounds, the two guests, Fisher and Lloyd, each found themselves battling their corner when faced with moral dilemmas such as ‘Is screening important?’ and ‘Do women still base their decision on old stereotypes about Down Syndrome?’ Though the feud was momentary at best, the wildly inflammatory nature of the topic further emphasises the growing importance of plays like Kinder K. Crudely and crucially, they demonstrate that shame can stamp out the very morals that define us.
Photo: Fay Summerfield