This Was The World and I Was King is a war-time drama about Evelyn, who returns to her family home; the play engrosses the audience in a nostalgiac recounting of the events of her childhood. During her father’s time on the front line, Evelyn’s mother took the children to stay with their uncle as they waited for their father’s return. The play details their experiences playing together, often playing the games their father had outlined to them in his letters home, using his and their own imaginations. When he returns early through injury, however, the good news is soon soured for the family as the effects of post-traumatic stress become evident in their father’s changed, more wary demeanour. Inspired by his uncle’s words, Evelyn’s brother leaves home at sixteen to join the army and follow in his father’s footsteps.
Part of the production focuses on the capacity for the human mind to utilise the imagination to great effect even in times of strife, sometimes even as a method for healing. The set design therefore does a fantastic job of both immersing the audience in the tangible world of the play and allowing fantasy to permeate the experience. Leaves and upturned books spill pages as they hang from roping on the ceiling. The tree in the centre of the in-the-round staging lends the impression of expanse and intimacy to the nature of the events that unfold.
There is wonderful music in the show, utilising live instruments and strong harmonies to great effect. George Jennings has composed beautiful songs that align well with the story of the play, forming a score that is both active and passive as it sits under the action occurring on stage. Joey Dexter sings and plays brilliantly and does well to slip so easily in and out of his character and singing voice.
There is an issue with many of the performances though, in that while they abound with energy and tightness, there is a lack of actual listening and moment-to-moment interaction between the actors on stage. Very often characters seem to be picking up cues to speak rather than delivering lines organically. This takes away from the liveness of the event, which has so much potential, especially given the recourse to its inventive set design. The montage scenes don’t work and rely too heavily on the scintillating sounds of the instruments and singers. The company could consider why this story has to performed on stage and whether many scenes could not indeed have worked better on screen. Puppetry and prop use, though full of potential for dramatic action in themselves, fail to add to the scenes in which the children use their imagination to play. This is because they take us out of the action of the story and we are left to try and appreciate them as set-pieces or as interesting add-ons to the piece itself. The most dramatically active and engaging scenes are those where the actors latch on to the subtext between the lines and where the play merges form and content most coherently. This is a perfectly watchable show but enjoyment is maintained more through the frequent interspersing of dazzling music. You repeatedly appreciate the set design as you find your eyes often tuning out of the action on stage and onto the lovely dangling lightbulbs on the branches of the tree. Perhaps a stripping down of sections of the piece to the bare elements of the story would improve the dramatic action of the play and keep the audience engaged for longer.
What is certain is that the horrors of wars still resonate and wreak chaos for years after any blood has been spilled. HookHitch theatre should be credited for trying to elucidate this message through this enjoyable folk musical.
This Was The World And I Was King is playing at the Arts Theatre until 22 June. For more information and tickets, see the Arts Theatre website.