With three productions in the last week asking me about national identity, we’re now officially in the post-Brexit era of storytelling. Frankly it’s a conversation worth having at any time, but it’d be easy to assume we’re running out of ways to discuss ‘Living in 2016 Britain’ onstage. Quite the contrary – I’ve had it explored in dialogue, song, poetry and lip-syncing in seven days, but Post at Ovalhouse might be the most cutting edge yet. Xavier De Sousa sits down and talks to you.
This is a production of consummate ease and huge sensitivity. De Sousa is of Portuguese descent and Post’s text, including dramaturgy from Ira Brand and Deborah Pearson, blends historical context with family values. I must admit I’m a beginner in extra-live shows, but it’s a technique that works so well here. It’s not audience participation, but animation. Our hands are taken, and we’re led through a brief retelling of Portugal’s past, it’s role in the founding of the EU and in European colonization. De Sousa enters the audience, asks our names, our nationality, our Home. It’s about taking the big with the small, appreciating the cultures of other countries, but never losing sight of your own. It’s a very personal effort, and all the better for it. This is the nationalism we should be preaching.
De Sousa understands how to talk to an audience, using eloquence above all else. His voice soft, his air light, he practically floats about the stage. There’s plenty for him to do as well, whether it’s plying us with copious amounts of cachaça, or slowly cooking us a delicious kale and potato soup. He really is the perfect host. There’s almost a sense of magic to De Sousa’s act, something so unassuming that you become an easy target for his stage trickery. This works especially well when an audience member is plucked out, handed a bowl of cabbage leaves, and asked to strip them in a forlorn manner. It’s silly, we laugh. A quick change of music and suddenly we’re transported to a kitchen we’ve only seen in old European films, it’s really brilliant. The ending features the meal around the family table, guest starring three audience members De Sousa has expertly chosen, pre-empting the weight they will bring to the discussion. It’s a great way of finishing his story, and by having one participant’s back to us, he also removes the inclusive nature. We’re back to being patrons, not participants, spectators to a conversation we wish we were having.
I love productions that have an easy-going nature, but the downside is always going to be pace. Not necessarily fluidity on the stage (I could watch De Souza set a table for hours, it’s a strangely absorbing effect), but speed of how ideas are presented to you. A switched-on audience is going to be ahead of the game, understanding the message, clamouring for the next bit of content; it never really arrives. What we ultimately lack is a clarity of message – there’s some beautifully understated lighting throughout, but a tech heavy ending note only serves to confuse De Sousa’s point. It’s not easy to bill a show as debate, whilst preaching to the choir. It’s especially difficult when your performer agrees with you. You walk out the door having witnessed a warm, nurturing, very special piece of theatre, but perhaps one you didn’t really engage with.
You’ve got to hand it to Ovalhouse – they are consistently producing theatre, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Post is no exception. This is a production that practises restraint and, while it may not leave you with anything substantial to take away, it’s an altogether positive experience anyone would enjoy. A big, warm-hearted hug of a show.
Post is playing Ovalhouse til December 3.