As if I’m halfway through third term of second year at York! The time certainly does fly by! Of course, the third years graduating soon will probably be a lot more nervous than I am! But the shows, of course, must go on, and that’s exactly what they’re doing over at York DramaSoc. On offer in the Drama Barn this weekend is Lanark, a free adaptation of David Grieg’s play based on Alasdair Gray’s original novel.
Lanark follows the story of a young man named Lanark (Dan South), who mysteriously wakes up in an unfamiliar city called Unthank. There he meets a number of the city’s inhabitants who suffer from strange diseases, from “dragonhide” to being covered in mouths. When they’re too ill, they get randomly swallowed up by the earth. From there they’re sent to an ominous place called the Institute, which occasionally cures individuals of their diseases. However, they leave many to suffer and perish, using them as sources of energy and food. Lanark has such a disease and is sent to the Institute. When he’s cured, and finds out about the Institute’s corrupt nature, he sets out to leave with the love of his life.
What follows is quite an epic narrative. Disjointed in its structure, like the novel it’s based on, the play incorporates a wide variety of themes. Underpinning them all is a sense of bleakness and tragedy, cleverly tied into the majority of the company’s portrayals of the play-world’s absurd characters. Georgie Wilmer really shines here and her performance never stops pulsating with endless energy, both physically and vocally. Evie Jones as Rima also shines, with her powerful, character-drenched vocals cutting through Ralph’s bleak realisation of the play-world. Topping this off, Golfo Migos and Oliver Henn’s physicalities as inhabitants of Unthank and Institute ‘doctors’ alike are superbly crafted and well-considered.
Some of the performances, however, don’t quite match those of the aforementioned. I found there to be some real issues with projection and clarity of speech from both South and Angus Bower-Brown. At times their performances are slightly too internal, jarring with those around them; we lose important character thought processes and plot points through lines subdued by such internalisation. While the characters may be quiet in their nature, the performers’ executions of them don’t make this entirely clear.
This isn’t helped by the lack of atmosphere throughout much of the play. It isn’t clear where the locations of some scenes are; there’s no apparent sound design, and we don’t really see many of the characters, especially Lanark, respond to these environments. This again makes things confusing to the audience. Only Izzy Marsh’s lighting design, coming in the form of several snappy blackouts and general colour washes, helps to signify changes in location. Having said that, I don’t think that the blackouts help the situation – instead, they make the audience feel even more disjointed, making it harder to keep up with the play’s fractured structure.
Perhaps these blackouts, and the minimalist nature of production aspects like sound and lighting, are part of Ralph’s realisation of the bleak play-world. However, I feel that things in this production generally aren’t pushed hard enough, and while there are some quality performances in here, several other areas of the production let them down.
In spite of these problems, Lanark is still well worth a watch. Its mind-boggling, disjointed narrative comes together in the end to unveil and provoke discussions of the tragedies of a modern capitalist world. It’s a brave attempt at tackling a challenging text, so be sure to check it out.
Lanark is playing at the Drama Barn, University of York until 15 May. For more information, see the University of York Students’ Union website.