Rosanna Trigg and Holly Williams take a look at Man and God and Blasted – two controversial productions for this term, one playing on and one off campus
No man, and certainly no student at York University, can claim to know the answers to the questions posed by modern cynicism. However a valiant attempt at some humorous philosophising is always welcomed by the Drama Barn audience, and Chris Bush’s newest offering certainly proves more satisfying than the traditional drunken debate. Indeed, an answer to the question of whether a God flawed enough to have created an imperfect world would be accepted by its naturally sceptical inhabitants is attempted with wit and originality.
The discourse of the piece flows naturally, allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief as they watch the archangels struggle with the public image of a slightly incompetent and eccentric God. Will Seaward bravely tackles the daunting role of the creator of mankind with a vulnerability that makes his flaws seem all the more human and therefore disturbing. This deficiency in charisma on God’s part makes the public preference for the polished Man, played by Andy Birnie, worryingly believable. Sophie Reynolds, playing Claire, the undervalued assistant to Matthew Lacey’s oddly faithless angel Gabriel, plausibly represents the modern loss of faith in anything not endorsed by the media. In fact, it seems unsurprising that in the end it is Michael, the eloquent and organised yet one dimensional female angel, that Claire eventually chooses to accept as the new God. Jenny Calder is well cast as this appealing public face of heaven as she presents a more consistent and media friendly deity than the robe clad original. Through her, Bush suggests that truth has been replaced by something more in keeping with changing public ideals.
The plain white costumes and scant set, with its juxtaposed symbols of traditional religion and modern society, ensure that the uncommon strength of the script takes centre stage throughout the performance. Whether you agree with Man and God’s controversial subject matter or find it blasphemous and offensive, it cannot be denied that Bush makes his point both explicit and plausible.
The York Theatre Royal has also been tackling controversial themes with the recent production of Blasted, performed by touring theatre company Graeae.
Sarah Kane’s first play is infamous as the most shocking example of ’90s, in-yer-face theatre, which fuelled tabloid fury as well as being critically acclaimed, yet actually very few productions of it are staged in Britain. The Graeae production offers a first chance to see this controversial play outside London, and the first interpretation of the play by a disabled company. Set up in 1980, Graeae create work that is both performed by, and accessible to, disabled people. Blasted seems a particularly appropriate play for their accessible aesthetic, and the use of disabled actors allows new interpretations of the script. Gerard McDermott, a powerful presence as Ian, the dying middle-aged journalist who rapes a younger girl in a hotel room in Leeds, is blind. This sets up interesting resonances in the second half of the play, where Ian has his eyes sucked out. Similarly, the physical frailty of actress Jennifer-Jay Ellison strengthens her portrayal of the vulnerable Cate.
Kane’s script includes stage directions that are intended to be read aloud. For a company who does this anyway (in order to increase the accessibility of the performance for a blind audience) this ‘felt like a gift’ for artistic director Jenny Sealey. The reading of stage directions produces a distancing effect, and prevents some of the violence of the piece from being too gratuitous, encouraging an audience to probe a little deeper into just what is going on and why. There were inconsistencies, however, with regards to how many of the spoken directions were also acted, and at times it felt like the production lost some of its impact owing to so many of the truly disturbing images only being spoken.
The choice not to use blood or attempt to simulate the more graphic moments (Ian eating the baby for example) may also have softened the blow of the play, yet staged as it was in the intimate setting of the studio theatre, the decision to eschew tricks and props seemed like a wise one. The intimacy of the setting and the ferocity of both script and performance meant that no guns or blood were necessary to convey the violence and cruelty of the world that Kane exposes. Blasted forges links between personal violence – the abuse of power in Ian and Cate’s relationship in the first half – and political violence, where in the second half the hotel room is literally blasted apart, and Leeds gives way to some hellish warzone. This unsettling production illuminates our human capacity for brutality, and the cyclical, perpetuating nature of acts of violence.