RADA Festival 2018

Always Right There

The all-female “Always Right There” (written by Natalia Rossetti and directed by Samara Gannon) combines two styles of theatre on a split stage: on the left, a pair of flatmates hang out chatting, eating hobnobs and watching dance movies over and over again. This naturalistic narrative is continually interrupted by a series of direct address monologues performed (while cycling at top speed) by women attending a spin class. The 80s music blares, the spin-ees assumes the position, the lights go down, and each woman, in turn, mounts the lead exercise bike and tells her story of adolescent or pre-adolescent sexual … abuse? Harassment?

The stories shared in Always Right There are intentionally nebulous. A teenage girl puts away her beloved Harrods dress after a family member makes an inappropriate joke about her ‘rates.’ A girl grows up spending the rest of her life wondering if her uncle was responsible for the disappearance of her dirty underwear. Other stories feature more overt incidences of abuse, but still within the realm of the mundane quotidian objectification culture we all live or try to live in.

Which brings us back to our protagonists marooned in their tiny studio flat. Eating their biscuits. They diss women’s magazines and debate wedding outfit etiquette, and nothing much happens. It’s ordinary and relatable, but there’s an edge to it. Why is a young woman hermitting herself away like this? Why does her ultimate sexual fantasy not involve any actual sex? Something surely has happened, something more devastating than a simple breakup.

Some of the acting is a little stilted, not helped by overly-expositional and occasionally rather preachy dialogue (“Did you know only 2% of rape claims are false?”). Having the cast deliver their monologues while cycling at top speed feels like a slightly gimmicky way to stop the energy from drooping. The script shows huge potential and covers some incredibly potent and important subjects with shards of humour and devastating accuracy, but is still a couple of re-drafts away from really hitting the mark. At the moment there is a sense of a play that doesn’t quite know what it is. There is a potent metaphor in the revolving line of women, the endless parade of quietly horrifying stories; women clad in double vested sportswear like neon armour lining up to explain, excuse, minimise — all the while making sure those bums are tight and boobs perky. “Had he really anything really wrong at all?” “I was bratty, but I still had rules. I still had guilt.” If this metaphor can be pushed, if the characters’ journeys and motivations can be clarified, Rossetti may have created an important piece of feminist theatre.

Knock Knock

Hot Coals Theatre’s Knock Knock is an inclusive physical theatre piece telling an unconventional love story through movement and music.

In a rustic oak-hewn house deep in a magical forest, lives a lonely woodcutter. One day a strange woman arrives at his door…

An unlikely love story develops between the bashful pair, but their wedded bliss fades when physical joy gives way to pressure to conform to stereotypes of what it means to be a “wife” and a “husband.” The gender politics here are subtle: a wife’s ineffably inept baking (following in a grand tradition of cooking as an act of physical comedy, uncracked eggs and all) turns joyously radical when the pair discover cleaning each other up can be more fun. Within this sweet, sad, poignant love story is a world of subtext about how sexuality, stereotypes, beauty, love, objectification, and societal pressure. Big themes, done small. It’s good stuff.

Hot Coals Theatre describes the piece as “created to be completely inclusive to both d/Deaf and hearing audiences” but there is no sense of the earnestness that stereotypes “disability theatre.” Knock Knock represents the new school of disability theatre: raw, entertaining, integrated. It’s artistically more closely aligned with Ramps on the Moon’s audacious and radical integrated productions, or Graeae’s joyous celebrations of humanity than the misery porn of previous eras. Created by one hearing and one deaf performer, movement, lighting, clowning and mask work combine to create a production stripped entirely of language (whether spoken or signed), music cues linked with lighting cues to create a fully integrated, accessible performance that hearing and deaf audiences could enjoy equally as a shared experience. Out of all the plays I saw at RADA Festival this year, Knock Knock was one of the few to follow a linear narrative and to really tell audiences a story. Perhaps being radical in form frees young companies to explore traditional storytelling?

The production was a little repetitive in places, but so utterly charming and performed by two such likable, charismatic actors (Clare-Louise English perfectly combines a feminine shyness with equally feminine frustration and sexual desire, while Jo Sargeant displays more range of emotion with only her eyes on show than many actors do with their whole faces. Similarly, the Dogpatchian setting occasionally borders on hokeyness (despite the lush set), but is saved by the emotional authenticity of the piece, and by some sweet but risque moments (I’ve seen a lot of radical theatres, but not even Sarah Kane has characters re-purposing Dustbusters as sexual aids).

LUCID

New Public’s Lucid also uses physical theatre merged with sound design to create a sensory and emotional experience. Here, the encounter is disorienting, not sweet. It’s very funny in places, but it is certainly not sweet.

Lucid uses the concept of a dreamscape to explore the “hidden depths of the subconscious” and what are dreams but manifestations of our suppressed waking fears and anxieties? Alarm clocks interrupt the flow of the narrative as waking life merges into dreams merging into other dreams merging into nightmares. Reality and the subconscious collide and smash into a million little pieces. Mundane anxieties become monsters.

The extraordinary and relentless physicality of the performers (all excellent, and impeccably choreographed) takes the audience to some dark places. This is a frenetic, intensely physical production; the bodies of the cast members colliding and merging, sometimes violently, as they dance and fight. Bodies are transported beyond the realm of the physical, and then literally objectified.

The narrative can be confusing to follow in some places, as befits a dream. Better to abandon logic than try to impose order on the (controlled?) chaos of the mind unleashed. Ultimately this is more of a sensory experience than a narrative play, and RADA Festival is all the more enriched for it.

https://www.rada.ac.uk/rada-festival-2018/ was on until 27 June – 7 July

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