Production: Instinct
Venue: Drama Barn
Rating: ***

Belt Up’s latest production, Instinct, was based upon a short story written by Director Jamie Wilkes. It was immediately apparent that this play was to be an unusual and exhilarating experience by a company renowned for their provocative staging and acting techniques.

From the off audience participation was key. Having entered through the side door of the drama barn, we were welcome to ‘The Instinct Project’, a semi-holographic representation of the future. This change of entrance proved to be highly successful, rejecting the stale format of typical productions. Immediately, the audience members were stripped of any individuality, being forced to clad themselves in a uniform of blue boiler suits. Unfortunately, the fumbling that ensued quelled the tension.

The Drama Barn, set in the chaos of a post-apocalyptic world, was transformed into a rubbish-filled, desolate wasteland. This debris gave birth to embryonic beings, spawned from the scraps of our civilisation. These alien bodies evolved throughout the play, exposing basic human conditions and the development of community. We observe them discovering to walk, become sexually active and establish their own “form of language” in nonsensical dialogue. As the play progressed, individual personalities subtly emerge from the cohesive group. Relationships and hierarchies form and we the witness roles of power, false idols, revolution and their consequences.

This evolution of characters was cleverly mirrored in the costumes of the troupe; initially all clothed in simple red boiler suits, individuals acquired additional distinguishing items as their psyches mature. With the audience also clad in boiler suits, all that stood between this civilisation and ours was their clown-painted faces.

In typical Belt Up style, the audience has little choice but to become totally immersed in the physical action of the performance. Cast members interact, moving the viewers around the space and engaging with them. Dynamic fight scenes are intricately choreographed and dancing is used successfully to produce ritualistic and comedic effects. However, it is arguable that some of these were overly long.

The lack of a recognisable language certainly created a challenge for the cast, forcing them to rely solely on their personifications and movements to convey the plot. This challenge was taken up masterfully, very seldom was the action lost in translation. Despite the number of actors on stage, fourteen in total, they worked energetically as an intrinsic unit and never allowed their characterisations to drop. Tom Powis, playing Bonski and Delum, performed by Dominic Allen, were particularly engaging. Marcus Emerton’s portrayal of Jerum, the scholar, succeeded in subtly highlighting his inwardness and eccentric genius. Danie Linsell’s depiction of the backward Zwagee, was also of note, ingeniously maturing throughout the play whilst maintaining childlike qualities.

Whilst this play highlights our instinctive needs and humanity’s inclination to destruction, comedy was constantly at the fore. It often took the form of absurd references to popular culture, slapstick elements, moments of misunderstanding between characters and the farcical sequential order of evolution. However, the most successful elements of the play were the strength of the cast and the conception as a whole, rather than the comedy.

Sections of the script and directing were not consistently impressive. The prelude to the play was unpolished, and whilst it pushes the boundaries of interactive theatre, it came across as a little superfluous. Additionally, despite fantastic characterisations from all cast members, the lack of understandable conversation made it harder to connect to the individuals and so some of the more emotional scenes were rather lost. Exacerbating this issue was the very nature of the interactive, immersive theatre as some of the action was difficult to view. Lastly, the play entered into the realms of the farcical towards the finale, with unnecessary and lengthy repetition. Yet, to remove or rectify many of these inferior points in the play would affect the original ideology behind this challenging script.

As one would expect with Belt Up play, Instinct was a remarkable experience and pushed the boundaries of campus theatre. The lack of dialogue, impressive emotive scenes and comedic value was reminiscent of the Slava Polunin’s famous creation, Asisyai the clown. This is particularly true of the opening scenes, yet it generally lacked Polunin’s subtlety. Instinct was not without fault and it was not the company’s best production, but overall it was a fine piece of experimental drama.

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