First off, Paines Plough and Northern Stage’s new space, the Roundabout Auditorium, is a thing of beauty. Essentially, this ‘flat pack’ theatre can be packed onto the back of a lorry to transport new writing up and down the country, and I foresee this ingenious new platform transforming the audiences of new writing.
The Initiate by Alexandra Wood is one of four plays touring with the Roundabout, all of which have been directed by George Perrin, joint artistic director of Paines Plough. Wood is an excellent example of the brilliant new writing the company turns out. The Initiate follows a Somali-born Londoner’s journey from driving a black cab to negotiating with Somalian pirates for the release of a British couple. It’s a slightly more relevant Captain Phillips.
The Roundabout provides an excellent forum for different perspectives; in this particular play it poses a lot of questions about how we initially perceive people because of their race or accent. The protagonist of this play essentially sets out from London on this mad mission because his son is getting bullied for looking like a Somali pirate in the news, and he wants to exemplify that Somalis shouldn’t all be tarred with the same brush to the British. Yet characters constantly question whether this man has a more selfish agenda, and where his alliances truly lie concerning his dual nationality. Although this conflict is primarily verbal, Perrin makes an interesting direction choice by making his characters speak with a Somali or London accent depending on who’s listening and whether characters are speaking their native dialect. However, this idea is initially confusing to establish.
Drama is conflict, or so they say, but I believe that the characters surrounding our protagonist are so fleeting they appear only to be present to provide conflict. The idea that characters are only there to move the plot alongs leads me to believe that Wood’s script isn’t entirely balanced. The conflict of the negotiation scene for example, is superbly quick-witted and tense in comparison to smaller, unnecessary scenes when you compare the whole to its parts. I worry that such an unreal story requires a lot of the minor characters merely for the purpose of setting up the situation for this heated negotiation to take place.
The actors excellently multi-role minor characters. The casting for some roles is colour blind, and without any major changes for example in costume or accent, the actors manage to communicate a different character purely through their tone of voice and inflections. Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis more than support Andrew French in the lead role, who makes a very likeable character to sympathise with.
The question of perspective in this piece is complemented by movement in the round, literally allowing the audience to see events from different viewpoints. The space itself is without any scenic decoration, making it a bit of a struggle to hold an audience’s attention for the entire hour and a half. It would be a challenge for any play, left to rest on the strength of the text alone without the rest of the conventions we’re accustomed to which ‘make’ theatre.
Wood tells a story about national identity against the relevant background of Somali pirate kidnappings regularly dominating the news. Altogether, The Initiate is promising work in an exciting new space which promises endless possibilities.
The Initiate plays at Hackney Downs Studios until 28 September, then continues on tour. For tickets and more information see the Paines Plough website.