"...it is one of the most powerful plays of the modern theatre, and which can, I hope speak to a new generation" states director Stephen Unwin in the programme notes. Indeed, this play is full of passion, and it is fantastically realised by an utterly strong and convincing cast. My only qualm with the piece is, possibly due to translation, possibly due to the very nature of Karge’s own words, it does take a little time to become accustomed to the pace and direction of the play; this is no surprise as Karge’s work is heavily influenced by Brecht, and his style of theatre/scripting is often not so naturalistic, and harder to acclimatise to than the ‘norm’. The actors do an unarguably excellent job of conveying the text though, portraying a compelling, entertaining and comical performance of this epic play.
Unwin was inspired to revisit this play partly because it was written in 1986. He talks about how now, in 2012, we seem to be reverting back to the 1980s: with "...record levels of unemployment and tax breaks for the very rich, as well as Thatcherite attacks on young people without work as ‘benefit scroungers’..." Using modern-day London accents works well to make this play pertinent to today’s British society, and we can see the parallels in the play (particularly relating to unemployment and wasted lives) compared with real life in the present.
Karge puts forward some very bold statements, "Human beings are just one big failure", and uses fascinating analogies such as having his character, Slupianek (O-T Fagbenle), ask if a chair really needs four legs to stand on; could it not make do with just one? "Is mankind full of mistakes?" The text is extremely thought-provoking and equally entertaining. Thank goodness Unwin has such a wonderful cast to put Karge’s play across. They really do get every ounce of life possible out of this piece.
Unwin has directed his actors boldly and sensitively to give a picturesque and atmospheric vision. There is not one weak link in the cast. Each of them gives a natural yet large and beautiful performance; confident and happy to embrace the audience, knock down the fourth wall, but at the same time ready to be intimate and present with each other on stage. There is fiery and endearing chemistry between them, and it is a joy to watch them working together in the space.
Perhaps one of the hardest jobs is given to Fagbenle as Slupianek. He delivers each line and each thought with unwavering confidence; he has charisma and charm, and, particularly in his several monologue-cum-soliloquy moments, shows us that he is not holding back. He truly gives us everything he has to offer.
The Arcola Theatre fits the play well. It has an industrial quality, and the company keep the set rather minimal, generally only bringing props on with them as and when needed, but also making good use of the characterful nooks and crannies this venue has to offer. The lighting is clear and considered without being pretentious, as it so easily could become given the nature of the piece, and compliments the production well.
If you’re prepared to be grabbed by the horns, or feel that you need a good shaking/waking up, I highly recommend attending this production. I would suggest that, in this case, it is better to go to the theatre relatively educated on what you are seeing in order to gain the most out of your experience.