“I have all the qualities it takes to be a success except for the knack of actually doing it – or even really wanting to do it come to that.”
This is certainly not the case for Nicholai La Barrie’s cast. Voted as one of the top 100 greatest books of our time by The Guardian, the Blue Elephant Theatre is now showcasing the first stage adaptation of Fernando Pessoa’s modernist work, The Book of Disquiet. With a wonderfully accessible translation by Mark O’Thomas, the production places the various musings in modern-day settings that audiences can digest without grappling with philosophically – the most prominent being the Wall Street world of The Number-Crunchers.
“It’s a promenade piece,” we’re told by a smiling Jasmine Cullingford (Artistic Director) and I feel myself immediately become awkward. Promenade theatre means two things to me: largely that I will be expected to perform in some way (which I know we inevitably do just by participating as audience members but I do not enjoy the position of ‘the observed’) and secondly that I will feel lost and panicked in a room, and wind up walking around in a daze missing huge chunks of important action. The Book of Disquiet demands no such anxiety. Aside from the odd bumping into fellow audience members – which can hardly be helped – I feel free to wander as I please around the small studio space whilst the lighting design (at times controlled by the cast’s effective use of torches) indicates clearly where my attention should be next directed. Not that you’d be able to miss a trick – the four cast members command the attention of all present and handle the dynamics of the room brilliantly. For a moment I stand and watch as audience members, engrossed, frantically shuffle backwards and sideways to allow Sarah Lewerth to continue clambering over chairs, tables, even her fellow cast members who create a physical obstacle course that laps the room, whilst she rattles off the endless possibilities of ‘freedom’.
As the script is translated from a series of Passoa’s memoirs and ruminations, a large percentage of the performance consists of actors reciting monologue-style pieces – no mean feat when they are all considerably dense in content, some of them mammoth. What becomes immediately clear is La Barrie’s desire for his characters, despite the fragmented nature of the thoughts that they relate, to develop as defined individuals. I am interested in everything that is being said because I feel that I’m able to invest in each of the characters presented before me. This is particularly true when considering Emily Wallis’ delivery of her ‘Green Dress’ speech: backed up against a wall of the box space, her ramblings quickly become increasingly more frantic as she obsesses over the details of fellow tube passengers with an extreme hyper-awareness, culminating in a full-blown panic attack. All the while, her co-cast members scribble branches of her every sporadic thought in chalk around her in an equally frantic fashion, struggling visibly to keep up as she her observations begin to snowball. The speed and accuracy of Wallis’ delivery is fascinating – she never falters, and I am never lost. Similar praise is necessary for Alex Clarke’s insomniac – although as ‘Simon’ his physicality has a danger of becoming a little excessive, this is instantly forgiven in his total embodiment of ‘the thinker who never sleeps’. Clarke uses every word with delicious intent, punctuating his thought process with tics, allowing the incessant whirring of the cogs in his head to become audible. It is painfully sad.
“I don’t sleep. I don’t expect to sleep. Even in death I won’t expect to sleep. I expect an insomnia the breadth of the stars.”
In fact, every member of the young cast do a sterling job – Gareth Murphy’s shedding of his ‘Wall Street’ skin to expose garters and suspender belt is wonderful, and Sara Lewerth absolutely oozes sexual prowess in her delectable native accent, protecting her character’s true vulnerability with a ‘cold, hard bitch’ front. My only criticism is encouraged by the involvement of ‘Geoff’ – an audience member chosen before the performance begins, who takes on the role of the central character (without having every seen the piece before). Our ‘Geoff’ did a sterling job and was naturally very watchable and in no way do I disapprove of the concept being explored here, in fact I love the idea of drafting a complete stranger into every show – it challenges the dynamics of the production and equally challenges the actors. The only time that ‘Geoff’ grated on me, was when his involvement in the piece required cast members to slip out of their wonderfully formed characters so that they could explain (although very succinctly) Geoff’s next set of instructions, for example: “you need to say ‘no’ a whole bunch of times” or “you’re now going to do a scene with Brenda”. Although these interjections provided gasps of comic relief, I began to dislike Geoff for intruding, for forcing a ‘snap’ to happen, and for forcing me to realize exactly where I was. It’s a shame, because I really wanted to love Geoff – he seemed like a swell guy – and I wonder if the company could have perhaps used the darkness to their advantage and do a lot of the necessary explanation out of the audience’s gaze?
Having never been to the Blue Elephant before, it quickly occurred to me how seriously the venue takes its artistic integrity – living proof that a theatre space in a far from affluent financial position need not compromise on the quality of the work that it produces. The Book of Disquiet is a prime example of such artistic policy: a set consisting of a black box theatre space (which doubled up as a life-size chalkboard) with a few tables, chairs and torches thrown in. Simple but effective lighting design creates an atmospheric sense of being nowhere in particular (aided by a small smoke machine and a sound design that will become smoother as the run progresses). This isn’t glamorous work, but it’s gritty and it’s exquisite.
The Book of Disquiet is playing at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 2nd July. For more information and tickets, see the Blue Elephant Theatre website here.