Voyager, New Diorama Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

What compels us to explore? It seems, at first, as thoughVoyager – its title a reference to the space probe launched by NASA in 1977, now the man-made object that has travelled furthest away from Earth – might attempt to answer this question. It follows Carrie, an English teacher who applies for a programme that is sending a teacher to Mars. It could be the opportunity of a lifetime. But she might not be able to come back.

Recently, space travel has provided a surprisingly rich theatrical seam. Alistair McDowall’s dizzying X has just finished its run at the Royal Court, while in 2014 Curious Directive addressed the possibility of a manned mission to Mars in the wide-ranging, ambitious Pioneer. The bar has been set high. Voyager, despite its promising premise, falls considerably short. It tantalisingly suggests a glimpse into the psychology of those who reach for the stars, but ultimately its story and its message are frustratingly earth-bound.

Carrie hears about the chance to go to Mars soon after losing her mother to Alzheimer’s. At first, she barely gives it a second thought, but then she discovers a tape left for her by her mother. Space exploration, as it turns out, might just be in her genes. She hears with excitement how her parents met while compiling the Golden Record – an audio-visual document of human life for any extra-terrestrials the probe might encounter – for the Voyager mission in the 1970s. A bit of her mother is still out there somewhere, propelled further and further away from Earth, and suddenly she feels the same pull.

The rest of the show is then a tug of war between Carrie’s impulse to leave and the commitments, especially to her partner Ben, which urge her to stay. This could offer a fascinating insight into the motivations of those who leave behind everything they know and love to explore new worlds, but it never digs quite that deep. We see Carrie’s anguished uncertainty, but not the mechanics behind her furiously whirring mental cogs. The Golden Record also feels like a missed opportunity, dropped into the narrative without being fully explored. And in the close yet shallow focus on Carrie, Idle Motion lose sight of the bigger picture of the complex desires and contradictions behind human space exploration. There’s not enough science for it to be science-driven and not enough character for it to be character-driven.

The plot, meanwhile, relies on some unlikely contrivances. The recorded voice of Carrie’s mother punctuates the story, providing timely revelations and reflections. But why wouldn’t Carrie listen to the whole tape to begin with? The stopping and starting message ends up feeling like a convenient narrative scaffold, diluting some of its emotional impact. The Mars mission likewise becomes little more than a catalyst for Carrie’s dilemma. Providing only the sketchiest of details about this NASA programme, the show leaves many questions maddeningly unanswered.

There is, though, a certain charm to Idle Motion’s storytelling that persists from earlier work. Ellen Nabarro’s versatile set, with its stylish geometric backdrop and collection of multi-purpose furniture, is smoothly and sometimes ingeniously used by the cast of five as they propel the story along. There are also some pleasing traces of the company’s physical work, though this movement is not deployed as strongly as it might be. Idle Motion do better with the small: beautifully observed little snatches of classroom conversation or tender moments of connection. Here, the vastness of space and the big ideas it invites about exploration, progress and human legacy elude the company’s delicate aesthetic.

Photo: Tom Savage.

The Talented Mr Ripley, New Diorama Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

All the best monsters are consummate performers. Think Shakespeare’s Richard III, stylishly murdering his way to the throne, or the deadly flair of Goldberg inThe Birthday Party. Tom Ripley, the brilliant sociopath created by Patricia Highsmith 60 years ago, is no different. He lives or dies on his ability to impersonate, relying on his quick-thinking skill as a performer to quite literally get away with murder.

The Talented Mr Ripley, then, makes for compelling stage material. Tom is essentially a showman, if an awkwardly intense one. We first meet him in a New York bar, head twisting over his shoulder, convinced he’s being watched. It turns out he is, but not by who he expected. Instead, a wealthy businessman offers to pay Tom to bring his son Dickie home from Italy, where he’s run away on an extended European jaunt. Snatching at the opportunity, Tom soon finds himself in idyllic Mongibello, where jealous obsession with charming, carefree Dickie (an effortlessly suave Adam Howden) turns an increasingly murderous shade of green.

The Faction and director Mark Leipacher have wisely fastened on the narrative’s more performative qualities in their new adaptation. Tom, played with fidgeting intensity by Christopher Hughes, is forever trying on new roles, testing a new sweep of the hair or trick of the tongue. We are first of allhis audience, the crowd of attentive eyeballs that he fears and desires in equal measure. The more immersed Tom becomes in his performance, adopting Dickie’s identity bit by bit, the more he revels in the display. As an actor thirsts for the adrenaline rush of the stage, Tom is hooked on pretending.

This emphasis also lends a distanced, theatrical gloss to the protagonist’s cool and unrepentant acts of violence. To him, as to us, the murders he carries out are little more than dramatic punctuation marks. In one intriguing but slightly clumsy device, Leipacher repeatedly positions Tom as the star of his own (presumably imagined) movie, cutting and reshooting crucial sequences in his trajectory. While jarring, it hints economically at Tom’s emotional dislocation from reality; a brutal murder might as well be a thrilling plot twist.

The language of economy is one that characterises The Faction’s storytelling. Their streamlined version of Highsmith’s novel is loathe to waste so much as a second, rattling over the plot’s terrain at sometimes breakneck speed. The upside is that we move at the same pace as Tom’s nervously frenetic mind, seeing the world through his rapidly blinking eyes. Such furious velocity, however, also makes it easy to miss things. Peripheral characters zoom past and the kaleidoscope of European cities in the second half becomes a dizzy haze.

But for those familiar with the often adapted tale, The Faction offer an engaging enough take on this durable material. As ever, the ensemble manage to do a lot with a little, transforming the stylish, stripped back design – just a raised white rectangle, supplemented by Christopher Withers’ evocative shafts of light – into countless different settings. It’s when the focus is on storytelling rather than speed, though, that The Talented Mr Ripley is most absorbing.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

33, New Diorama Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

When I last saw The Wardrobe Ensemble, they were scrapping for flat-pack furniture, energetically retelling the story of a riot in a newly opened Ikea store. For their latest outing, they have fastened once again on fascinating real life inspiration, imagining the ordeal of the Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days in 2010. Engaging in one long game of Chinese whispers, the company explore the events of those 69 days from the fictionalised perspectives of the miners and their families, the media frenzy forming on the surface, and the people all over the globe who found a strange sort of hope in the crisis.

Again, however, The Wardrobe Ensemble’s focus does not match their energy and invention. By taking on so many different viewpoints, the company find themselves moving frenetically from one to the next, failing to invest any one element with the attention it needs. In the mine itself, the trapped men struggle with the physical and mental pressures of their confinement, while also contending with a controlling psychologist who censors the letters from their loved ones; in the world outside, media and public alike get drunk on the story of miraculous survival. The lightly sketched scenes that these locations offer us are all enjoyable enough, but rarely achieve the impact of clearly delineated outlines.

At the outset of the show, the company admit that theirs must be a shaky reconstruction, continuing the sort of speculation that abounded during the crisis itself. But to acknowledge this continuing chain of information and misinformation without interrogating their own act of appropriation is either disingenuous or naive. The ravenous vultures of the world’s press are vividly captured here, frantically waving papers and yelling headlines, but surely The Wardrobe Ensemble themselves are guilty of a similar act of narrative theft and manipulation. The potentially problematic implications of this, however, remain underexplored outside of their prologue.

Oddly, one of the most fascinating and effective strands of the show is not set around the mine at all. Thousands of miles away, a man alone in his apartment in the middle of the night watches beaming Chilean faces on his television screen, the sound and brightness turned right up, and can feel the hope seeping into him. One by one, others join him – strangers united in their shared feeling for a group of people they will never meet. It is this overwhelming global response that feels as though it is the real heart of the piece, prodding gently at ideas of contemporary alienation and disconnection, as well as beginning to hint at the company’s own motivations for seizing on this widely documented subject matter.

Despite the frustrating distraction of the piece, as the narrative reaches its heady climax the diffuse elements come briefly together, demonstrating once again the company’s promising aesthetic. As in Riot, The Wardrobe Ensemble have a thrilling ability to use their bodies in surprising ways and are often at their best in the show’s more physical sequences. Objects, too, are used economically but inventively, building a whole world from scant resources. The company just need that visual ingenuity and instinct for intriguing material to be moulded into tighter dramaturgical shape.

A Trio of Tragedies

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In this year’s rep season from The Faction, there are a hell of a lot of corpses. Across the span of the trio of tragedies – Hamlet, Thebes and The Robbers – the body count is staggeringly high. If one were to characterise the company’s third season of work in a few words, dark, violent and bloody immediately jump to mind.

Reductive as this is, there is something about death, both as an abstract idea and a concrete reality, which haunts all three productions. When I spoke to The Faction’s artistic director Mark Leipacher about this new season, he explained that the company did not have any overarching theme or narrative in mind when they put together the programme; their priority was simply to find work that engaged and excited them. Still, the simple placing of these plays alongside one another invites a dialogue between them, a dialogue which is repeatedly preoccupied with mortality.

There is perhaps no more famous theatrical consideration of life and death than Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Hamlet’s fame and familiarity are often albatrosses to sling around the shoulders of new productions, all of which must fall under the burden of the play’s reputation. The Faction’s interpretation, directed by Leipacher, suffers a little from this predicament. Compared with previous productions of theirs, there is an uncharacteristic timidity to their approach; few moments match the visual boldness of their best work, and there is the sense that each actor is deeply aware of the weight of the words falling from their lips.

That said, there are some intriguing touches to this Hamlet. The characterisation of the procrastinating protagonist himself is perhaps the most striking departure, as Jonny McPherson plays the Dane less as a conflicted hero and more as a whining egotist. Amidst tentative attempts to wrench something new out of the play, this comparatively brave choice stands out, offering novel and occasionally unexpected resonances to Shakespeare’s words. The ever-compelling Derval Mellett, meanwhile, makes a fascinating and nuanced Ophelia, adding vivid colour to a role that can often feel lightly sketched.

The season really hits its stride, however, with Thebes, Gareth Jandrell’s ambitious attempt to slot together the full story of the Oedipus dynasty from the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus. It stands out as the clear highlight of this year’s programme, offering this most famous of classical sagas in a form that makes it feel thrillingly fresh. What adds the sense of urgency and momentum is primarily the production’s shift of focus; as signalled by the title, it is the city and its beleaguered people who become the heart of the narrative. This city is both Thebes and nowhere, The Faction’s non-specific updating dislocating it from time and place and positioning it instead as a potent metaphor for power, corruption and revolution.

Following the template established by McPherson’s moody Hamlet, The Faction are unafraid to highlight the tragic flaws of their privileged but doomed characters, who are increasingly detached from the seething masses they rule. Lachlan McCall brings arrogant swagger to the ill-fated Oedipus, while his two sons are suitably vile, self-centred and ruthless in their competition for the throne. This is an elite who are either blindly wrapped up in their own problems or coldly fixated on power. Cary Crankson – another performer who impresses across all three productions – epitomises this calculated power-grabbing with his Creon, a supremely slippery politician who soothes with one hand as he snatches with the other.

The pulse of the piece, however, lies firmly with the people. In Rachel Valentine Smith’s production, the Chorus are transformed into a writhing, revolutionary mob, variously whispering, sighing and stamping at the edges of the action. When gathered together in this crowd, the ensemble move fluidly as one, exploiting the physical vocabulary that they have developed over years of working together. This is where the muscularity of previous work returns in force, creating a population to be reckoned with and a sparse but captivating visual aesthetic to match Jandrell’s lyrical, punchy script.

Following the epic scope and revolutionary fire of Thebes, the scrappy, overblown drama ofThe Robbers feels like a significant step down. This is a remounted production for The Faction and forms a key part of their project to stage the complete works of Schiller, but it is far from the playwright’s best, lacking the tense political machinations of Mary Stuart and Fiesco, which were showcased in The Faction’s last two rep seasons. Here, instead, the drama is centred on a father and his two sons, the younger of whom attempts to usurp his older brother. It is all blood and passion, heightened to the extent that it frequently tips over into melodrama.

There is still the muscular approach of The Faction’s preferred aesthetic, alongside some inventive visual devices. Chalk is a key material, used first to compose the letters that seal the fate of cast out older brother Karl and later by Karl’s band of rebels to strikingly tally up the men they kill on their numerous rampages. It is in the scenes between these eponymous robbers that the production is at its strongest, once again playing on the group’s strength as an ensemble to build a convincing sense of camaraderie. At their centre, overshadowing conflicted Karl, is Crankson as the cocksure, rebellious Spiegelberg. Yet even Crankson’s undeniable charisma flags in the final scenes, as the bodies stack up and the overwrought emotion becomes wearing in its relentlessness.

After the slightly more cluttered sets of last year, this season wisely reverts to The Faction’s bare, stripped back minimalism, using the New Diorama’s black box studio and their own bodies as canvas and paint. The bare black wall is particularly well used, whether seemingly being held up by the defending soldiers of Thebes or treated as a giant blackboard in The Robbers. In this largely empty space, the brilliant work of lighting designers Chris Withers (Hamlet and Thebes) and Matthew Graham (The Robbers) is crucial in carving up the scenes, skilfully offering both shape and atmosphere. Light spills in from offstage, casting interesting shadows, or glows dimly from a single, dangling light bulb. In line with the morbid subject matter, gloomy visual landscapes abound.

This is now the third year in a row that I have attended The Faction’s annual rep season, allowing a line to be traced through their work over that time. In many ways this year feels like a return to the company’s essential aims and aesthetics, focusing on the kinds of text and staging that most enthuse and inspire them. There is also, of course, the return to one of their landmark productions with The Robbers, but this fails to match up to the best of what they have created since. It is instead in Thebes, arguably The Faction’s most ambitious work to date, that the company’s aspirations and strengths are found in their purest form: a bare but thrilling staging, an approach to classics that makes them feel like they were written yesterday, and an unshakeable faith in the power of the ensemble.

Photos: Richard Davenport.

The Rep Tide Turns

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Originally written for The Stage.

Repertory theatre might just be staging a comeback. While the Lyric Hammersmith undergoes major building work, the Secret Theatre company is occupying the untouched auditorium with a year-long programme of work driven by the ensemble. Elsewhere, Vicky Featherstone began her Royal Court tenure this summer with a festival featuring an ambitious weekly rep programme, while English Touring Theatre is exploring a repertory structure with Tonight at 8.30, its upcoming production of one-act Noël Coward plays.

The freshly vaunted advantages of the rep model will come as no surprise to The Faction. The company, which recently celebrated its fifth birthday, has been working towards this model from the moment of its conception, guided by artistic director Mark Leipacher’s passion for ensemble theatre and muscular versions of classical texts. The company’s ambition is bold but simple: a permanent ensemble, a home venue and a rolling repertoire.

While many have mourned the decline of the great British repertory theatre, which acted as a fertile training ground for the likes of Judi Dench, Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, The Faction looks to the continent rather than to the past for its chief inspiration. The company’s model is drawn from that of German theatres like the Schaubühne in Berlin, where a large repertoire of plays is presented by a resident ensemble.

“The idea for The Faction was always an ensemble theatre company following the model of a German theatre,” Leipacher explains. “Because it doesn’t really exist over here; even when rep was alive and well, that’s not the format that our rep model had in the UK.”

What The Faction’s ensemble approach does share with the old British rep model, however, is its focus on the actor. At a recent conference, playwright Simon Stephens – who is currently working as a dramaturg for the Secret Theatre ensemble – suggested that the UK’s freelance culture “can stifle bravery in acting performance”. This is just what The Faction hopes to reverse.

“Any director will tell you it’s a requirement to try and make the rehearsal room a safe place,” says Leipacher, “so that an actor can arrive without the need for ego, without inhibitions, and have the confidence in order to experiment and to play. I think with an ensemble that’s inbuilt.”

Although The Faction is still some way from its ultimate aim of a permanent ensemble performing a repertoire of plays all year round, this will be the third consecutive year that the company has presented an eight-week rep season at the New Diorama Theatre. Leipacher tells me that these rep seasons are “essentially a small model of how we want to work full time”, with the plan being to slowly extend these towards a year-long programme. He admits that it’s a “gradual process”, but the final aim is unwavering.

This year’s programme represents a blend of old and new for the company. It is remounting its Peter Brook Award-winning production of Friedrich Schiller’s The Robbers, which Leipacher describes as a “quintessential Faction show”, as well as returning to Shakespeare to tackle Hamlet for the first time. Completing the season is Thebes, an audacious attempt to weave together Sophocles’ and Aeschylus’ accounts of the Oedipus dynasty. Unlike the more defined thematic threads of previous rep seasons, Leipacher says that “the only condition this year was that they had to be plays that really excited us as directors, as a company – meaty, big, epic material that played to our strengths, that pushed us into new areas.”

Epic is the key word there. This sense of scope – both in terms of narrative and emotion – is what keeps The Faction returning again and again to classical plays. Leipacher insists that “there is no better material”, citing the plays’ timelessness and “universal themes” in contrast to new writing’s preoccupation with the zeitgeist. “It’s much more about human experience, about jealousy, about love, about responsibility,” he continues, “something that’s applicable to everybody and to any time. The purpose of doing the productions now is to do them for this time.”

As much as Leipacher enthuses about what excites The Faction as artists, the company is equally focused on its audience. Leipacher is adamant that repertory theatre offers a richer experience for theatregoers, with whom the company is able to “extend a dialogue” over a longer period. Audiences also have the opportunity to see the ensemble in a range of different roles, which Leipacher argues allows them to “enjoy the craft of the production and the ethos of the company as part of their theatregoing experience”.

Geoff Colman, Head of Acting at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, is in agreement with The Faction about the advantages of the rep model for both theatre makers and audiences, describing it as “a place of experience, experiment, continuing development and trust”. He is also optimistic about the potential for bringing back rep under a new guise, adding, “I am convinced that other theatre makers will be looking at this reinvention of rep very closely”.

Discussing the experiments in ensemble theatre that are cropping up across British theatre, Leipacher says that “any movement towards that European model here in the UK is exciting”, but stresses the importance of longevity. It remains to be seen whether projects like Secret Theatre will go on to create longer term change, but Leipacher hopes that the Lyric and others will make the same commitment to ensemble theatre that is central to The Faction’s ethos. “Hopefully it’s the beginning of a tidal shift.”