The Tell 8

Eight new plays by eight different writers, The Tell 8 is a collection of plays ranging from a therapy session in a dystopian society to an exploration of language during the 2011 referendum in Sudan (and, inexplicably, Jaffa Cakes). Not knowing what to expect, the audience watch as the lights go up on a blank stage; a couple of white chairs on a white floor, a few pots of paint the only splashes of colour. And so the performances begin.

A man dressed all in white ambles on stage, stands there for a moment or two and takes in his surroundings, before picking up a paintbrush. He begins to paint, the stage floor his canvas. All the while the audience are watching his every move; every detail has heightened importance when there’s a little less to look at. The silence is malleable. It stretches the seconds out into aeons as he continues to paint what eventually become discernible as words (although at this point it must be stated that, due to the layout of the Tristan Bates Theatre, at least a third of audience members further back have no idea what is going on).

Each play continued very much in this way, presenting the audience with the minimal set, no costume, the same cast. Yet each one was uniquely different. Fashioned out of distinct, strong writing styles, it was easy to distinguish between them. It was refreshing to see such different stories crafted out of the same blank slate.

As an audience member, your mind is tested and imagination engaged. It is an unusually interactive experience as your brain wraps itself around each word, each movement, and the smaller details that you would have thought you’d miss in a theatre.

While the size of the Tristan Bates Theatre is largely accountable for the detail and intrigue of the performances, it’s essentially a black box. The walls, floors and ceiling are black, the chairs are black and the stairs are black. No windows. Admittedly, this does add to the atmosphere and intimacy of the place, but at least once in the two hour run I am certain the words “too darn hot” and “stuffy” crept in and settled themselves tiredly in the brains of overheating audience members.

The impressive variety of cultural influences and writing styles created interesting themes throughout the performances. The focus on the power of language in Neener-Neener written by Alla Taha was interesting, especially set against the backdrop of the 2011 referendum in Sudan. The same goes for the thought-provoking material on societal differences in Hard to Swallow written by Lee Broderick and Social Work written by Denise O’Brien, although one of the highlights of the evening belongs to the latter – a welcomed moment of pure comedy in which an endearing, fag-smoking 81-year-old lady from Essex bursts out into some good old ABBA karaoke.

On the whole, the acting was good, despite the (gasp) use of scripts in the final play, and the odd crazy accent that seemed to originate from at least three different countries. A standout was Dilek Latif in Donna Palmer’s Floor 17, Room 9, whose performance coupled with Palmer’s crafty writing challenged audiences, provoking a constant questioning of truth.

The Tell 8 was an evening of refreshing creativity. The variety made for engaging performances, despite the unignorable stuffiness.  And even if the genres weren’t your type or the writing wasn’t your style, it was a welcome exercise of the mind and the imagination.

The Tell 8 played the Tristan Bates Theatre on 21 and 23 September. For more shows at the Tristan Bates Theatre see the website.