Karagula, Styx

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Often, Philip Ridley’s work treads a fine line between reality and fantasy. Monsters dwell in bedsits and the strange erupts from the mundane. In his latest play, though, he abandons himself entirely to the fantastical. Karagula is a messy, sprawling sci-fi epic, spanning hundreds of years and dozens of characters. It’s a long way from the contained, claustrophobic oddness and horror that Ridley is perhaps best known for.

We start, at least, in familiar territory. A young couple kiss in the dusk, talking about the upcoming prom. Soon, though, this hackneyed scenario is subverted. Dean, tipped for prom king that year, is afraid about what happens after he’s crowned. His girlfriend, Libby, romanticises the glory of his forthcoming sacrifice. There’s talk of bullets and blood. Then, while we’re still digesting the sudden change of tone, the play wrenches us somewhere and somewhen else. And somewhere and somewhen else again.

As with his earlier play, Shivered, in Karagula Ridley takes a hammer to his narrative, piecing its splinters back together in non-linear form. To begin with, scenes share little to no relation to one another. We’re dazzled with a baffling array of characters and places and conflicts. Gradually, though, connections appear between what seem like completely different worlds. What looms into view, as we assemble it piece by piece, is a jigsaw puzzle of vast proportions, following one imagined civilisation through upheavals, revolutions and brutal civil wars.

This is ambitious stuff to put on a stage. Sci-fi of this scope tends to be reserved for films, high-budget TV and hefty novels. It’s especially ambitious on a fringe theatre scale (and budget), which is what theatre company PIGDOG have – albeit somewhat wonkily – achieved. There are a huge number of scenes and settings to race through, a feat managed with impressive fluidity thanks to canny use of lighting, sound and space in Max Barton’s production. In a former ambulance depot in Tottenham Hale, the audience are seated along two sides of the action, our attention being dragged swiftly from one end of the space to the other with a dynamism that matches the energy of the fast-moving script. Only after the interval, when the seating switches to an end-on configuration, does it begin to drag a little.

Faith – often misguided – is a recurring theme throughout. In Mareka, the uncanny, pink-tinged replica of 1950s/60s American suburbia where prom kings and queens are annual sacrificial offerings, the worship of milkshakes is an incitement to murder. In other fractured, fragile societies, belief latches onto whatever it can find. I’m reminded more than once of Mr Burns, which traced the post-apocalyptic elevation of fragmented pop culture to semi-religious idol. If Karagula as a whole is “about” anything, then it’s about the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world and the lengths those stories can lead us to. Narratives create meaning, but they can also sow the seeds of destruction.

As for Karagula’s narrative, it’s as bloated and baggy as it is ambitious. For every scene that builds the intrigue and increases the tension, there’s another that’s wildly superfluous. The second half, while shorter than the first, feels drawn out – especially a scrappy bunker scene that long outstays its welcome. PIGDOG do their best with it, chucking in a TARDIS-full of visual sci-fi references and pluckily making the best of the budget Doctor Who aesthetic, but what Ridley’s play really needs is streamlining. Epic and ambitious, yes, but not half as haunting as the confined nastiness that Ridley specialises in.

Photo: Lara Genovese.

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