Well, I can’t believe it’s pretty much the end of my first term of second year at York. It’s been fantastic from start to finish, but now I’m looking forward to going home for Christmas, as I’m sure everyone else is (including the third years). Speaking of the third years, I got the chance to review the other half of the cohort’s final modern production, Zinnie Harris’s 2011 play The Wheel. I couldn’t wait to see what this massive team had done with the play under the direction of Saffia Sage.
When her home is taken over by soldiers fighting in a violent war, Beatriz (Hollie Whelan) realises she’s charged with a highly difficult task: to embark on a journey with a girl on a quest to find her father, whom the soldiers have just exiled. Picking up a young boy fleeing a burning village on the way, along with a baby from another village under fire, Beatriz makes her way across a vast expanse of space and time and is forced to see first-hand the true atrocities of war. But the young girl she’s journeying with has a gift – the ability to restore life and manipulate people. But it’s a gift that ultimately marries with the death of innocence and cruelty of war.
The Wheel is an intense piece of theatre that paces itself nicely and makes full use of the Black Box’s unique aspects. It has scenes that are desperate and fast-paced, and others that broodingly analyse the effects of war on human nature. Sage beautifully invokes the wit and power embedded in the text, embodied in the form of each character on stage – from the performers themselves to the puppets, which we’ll come back to – as well as the lighting and sound.
All of the characters in The Wheel are powerfully defined and bold. They’re so well-crafted that it’s easy for you to latch onto them as you journey through the narrative with them. In particular they convey relationships and demeanour towards others very well, and make a significant contribution to each scene’s atmosphere. It’s not possible for me to single out any performers here as the whole company work well together as an ensemble and present their characters with utter confidence.
Charlotte Lade and Lily Luty have created lighting and sound design respectively that match that of sister production The Cosmonaut’s Last Message. Strobe lighting and washes are used to the best effect throughout to highlight poignant moments in the narrative that stick in your mind long after you leave the theatre, while sound effects further enhance these touching elements. Set designers Tim Kelly and Will Heyes have also done a brilliant job, cleverly using hanging dust sheets to conceal entrances and exits and seal up the vast expanse of the Black Box, which can suck the life out of a performance if its intimacy is not embraced. Rose Burston’s costumes are also excellent, with a neat and tidy neutral beige and brown palette cleanly bringing every member of the company together, and allowing us to focus on the narrative, characters and underlying questions that the play poses.
The children Beatriz encounters are puppets, and they are this production’s most powerful assets. Venetia Cook, Gavin Pattison and Vanessa Ostick all puppeteer the girl, the boy and the baby respectively – and they do it beautifully. They cleanly and concisely create living, breathing characters out of these puppets, and they’re an absolute joy to watch.
The Wheel is stunning. Well-directed, well-designed and well-executed, it’s a final modern production to be truly proud of.
The Wheel was staged by the University of York’s Theatre, Film and Television students, and played at the Black Box until 28 November. For tickets and more information, see The Wheel’s website. Photo: University of York TFTV Department.