The stage within Wild Swimming is a liminal space, within which time is constantly shifting and the actor-character distinction is fluid. It’s equally dependent upon script and improvisation, however the relationship is rather a joyous tripping up of one another, than working hand in hand. And props or the occasional snack are thrown out into the audience throughout. Altogether, this creates an atmosphere of unpredictability. However, the truthfulness of Alice Lamb and Annabel Baldwin’s delivery paired with the intimate studio space, means this unpredictability bonds rather than unsettles the audience.
On one beach, across five centuries, with one ‘couple’, Nell (Alice Lamb) and Oscar (Annabel Baldwin), we encounter the inconveniences of hoop skirts, an over-enthusiastic analysis of Jane Eyre, the trauma of post-world-war society and land with a crash in the present.
Zoe Brennan’s costume combination of cravats and backwards baseball caps perfectly echoes Marek Horn’s melding of traditional and modern dialogue. Marek’s construction of commentaries upon period conventions through an immodest and sexualised lens provides searing humour.
For two whole centuries, the relationship of this ‘couple’ appears to consist of mutual carefree mockery, with the prohibiting restraints of Nell’s gender merely superficially underlying the jokes. But as it plunges into the 1930s the play adopts a darker tone.
Julia Head’s brilliant direction of audience interaction and apparent nonchalance unknowingly leads the audience to become invested in these seemingly real characters, so the refraining from more intense dialogue at the beginning enables a tactical pulling of the rug from underneath the us later on. Baldwin’s performance in this time period especially is commendable, she encapsulates the frustration and pity of lamenting a life and spirit war took away.
It is not until the play comes within decades of our own time, that the consequence of Oscar, a single man, experiencing and carrying the burden of a whole history of cis white male privilege is revealed; how the reversal of gender-derived success within the ‘couple’ and the blame for discrimination inflicted centuries ago means present day is a hostile time.
The audience untangles, from the witty and playful storytelling, the very prevalent issue of gender roles, which the play delicately yet humorously approaches. Therefore, Wild Swimming,unlike many current shows, allows a social issue to arise through a story, rather than forcefully formulating a story to express the desired social issue.
One complex creative decision was to have Oscar portrayed by a female actor. Head explains that this balanced the authority of the male and female perspective, as within previous performances with a male actor, Oscar’s voice became too loud and important. Also, it ironically reverses the Elizabethan convention of men dressing up as women within plays, which reiterates the taut through-line of the centuries, as Nell and Oscar’s achievements and ambitions swap.
This is a one-off performance, both in the creative style of encouraged deviation from and destruction of the script, the disregard for the fourth wall and the crafted approach to the often voiced but too frequently unimpactful issue of gender roles. The only negative of FullRogue’s theatrical approach is their partial dependency upon an invested audience, and noticeably the atmosphere within Bristol’s studio was more reticent than when I saw it performed at Edinburgh Fringe, leading the actor’s energetic characterisation to feel laboured in the first quarter. So, I encourage you all to come open-minded and unapologetic for the snort or two that may sneak out amongst the laughs.
Wild Swimming is running until the 21st of September, 2019. For more info check the Bristol Old Vic website.