With its entire cast eerily prostrate on the stage as the audience enters, Stripped begins as its protagonist’s life ends. After a series of empty days and years, a nebulous chorus comes to collect this never-named young man for whatever it is that comes next. What follows is the absurd, fast-paced second play by new theatre company, the Sigil Club, written and directed by its founder, Michael Eckett.
Unwilling to accept his death, the protagonist, He, strikes a Faustian deal with Gog and Magog (played with compelling madness by Tim Nolan and Kate Quinn, respectively), the supernatural beings who are to usher him through his departure. If he can discover the meaning of his life within nine days, he gets to live it; if not, Gog and Magog get to send him wheresoever they please.
Many of the usual trappings of the theatre are stripped away. With the set and costumes all black, the actors have a wonderfully blank slate on which to paint their various talents, and to have fun with this play. Character is more about existential substance than past specifics and events are hard to pin down. It is, as the graphic on the programme’s cover and a line in the play suggests, more of maze of thought.
Quite a lot of the play is in its script, which Eckett seems to have crafted both carefully and playfully, with sexual references to match his mythical ones. It’s teeming with references to be teased out, and existential questions to be considered. But it is the strength and energy of the young cast that truly brings it to life. The chorus is vivacious, each member of the company does their bit to breathe life into something which is quite pointedly unreal.
Kris Wood’s schulmpy portrayal of He as a hapless, harmless everyman also lends some depth to the piece. As an underdog, the audience cannot really relish watching Wood’s He suffer, since, as he often proclaims, he hasn’t done anything to deserve this fate. Simultaneously, the sense of entitlement exemplified by such statements, combined with his mawkishness, never allows him to be an entirely sympathetic character. Therein lies a central tension: He is a victim of circumstance, but he is also a victim of his own laziness. If He were to question the questions his chorus has him asking, might he learn something which better approaches a meaningful answer?
Strangely, I think the secret ingredient to this play’s success may have been its venue. The Chickens & Hens Theatre, an intimate, low-key studio space above the Highbury pub was the perfect venue for Stripped. The blackness of the room, combined with the high-pitched sur-reality of the play created a sort of liminal space between pints in which to enact this little vision of limbo. It is 45 mental minutes to enjoy between pints on a Thursday night – a little provocation to punctuate and amplify that soulless chat you were having with you mates before heading into the show.