HighTide Festival 2015

HighTide Festival Aldeburgh Suffolk Sept 2015 So Here We Are by Luke Norris Director/Steven Atkinson Designer/Lily Arnold Lighting Designer/Katharine Williams Kirsty / Jade Anouka Frankie / Daniel Kendrick Dan / Ciaran Owens Smudge / Dorian Jerome Simpson Pugh / Mark Weinman Pidge / Sam Melvin ©NOBBY CLARK +44(0)7941-515770 +44(0)20-7274-2105 nobby@nobbyclark.co.uk

Originally written for Exeunt.

What happens when the person you are turns out not to be the person you want to be – or the person you feel you should be? The three new plays premiering as part of this year’s relocated HighTide Festival all grapple with versions of this same question. Desire, identity and ambition are recurring themes, as is the very idea of performance: the selves we perform for others, and what might lie beneath.

The shingle and seagull cries of HighTide’s new home in Aldeburgh are an apt backdrop for Luke Norris’s latest play So Here We Are, a portrait of grief and disappointment beneath the slate skies and glaring coloured bulbs of Southend. Steven Atkinson’s production opens with four men staring out at the audience, cans of Stella in hand, their long silence as hard-edged as Lily Arnold’s pointedly masculine design of concrete and shipping containers. They don’t know what to say.

They’re mourning the death of Frankie, childhood friend and missing member of their five-a-side team. When they do find words, they talk awkwardly around the gaping black hole of their grief, gags and insults thrown around as aggressive tokens of affection. Norris’s dialogue is brilliant at capturing the everyday rhythms and evasions of speech, particularly between men who would rather crack jokes than confront their emotions. “People need a laugh,” reasons laddish Pidge, but not all of his mates agree. Then there’s a question, tentatively aired, about the nature of Frankie’s death. Was it really an accident?

In the second half, flashing back to the last hours of Frankie’s life, the clues and doubts planted in the first begin to take seed. We see Frankie stuck, restricted to a path he never meant to set out on. “What’s the point?” he asks. There’s no answer. It’s a very ordinary tragedy, of a life confined by wrong decisions and the inflexible expectations of what makes up a “normal” life: wife, mortgage, kids. As the future ghosts the present, watching becomes an exercise in connecting dots. The picture that emerges, though, is disappointingly neat, going needlessly far in its explanations and losing some of the simple impact of the first act. Resolution blunts loss and rage.

Up the road and away from the beach, the eponymous protagonist of BRENDA is also questioning the point of it all. Created by writer E V Crowe and director Caitlin McLeod, this is a real curiosity of a show, as frustrating as it is intriguing. Cannily staged in a local church hall, the piece finds down on their luck couple Brenda (Alison O’Donnell) and Robert (Jack Tarlton) about to make a plea to their community for help. Only before she can introduce herself to others, Brenda needs convincing that she’s even a person at all.

It’s a strange, offbeat watch. Crowe and McLeod stretch insistently at pauses, testing how long it’s possible to stage silent entrances, exits and absences. As they haphazardly rehearse their presentation, O’Donnell and Tarlton move among the audience, talking repeatedly about community while very deliberately ignoring the community of spectators right there in front of them. The fourth wall isn’t exactly broken, but these theatre-makers know how to prod it. Theatricality and the art of performance are central and persistent concerns.

But it’s never quite clear to what ends. With her repeated, insistent statement “I’m not a person”, Brenda’s unnervingly extreme position hints at the rather more ordinary ways in which we all perform coherent selves. There are also distant echoes of government and media rhetoric, insidiously undermining the personhood of those who don’t fit into the “aspiration nation”, but this is never more than a faint resonance. The disturbing final moments suggest something dark yet undiagnosed underneath the play’s slippery surface; what it might be is anyone’s guess.

Even more unsettling than the closing image of BRENDA is the final and most impressive premiere of the festival, Al Smith’s haunting Harrogate. As staged by Richard Twyman, it’s nightmarishly uncanny, its triptych of scenes worming their way further and further into the mind and remaining there in a stubborn tangle. It’s a play of jolts, each the theatrical equivalent of that feeling of missing a step in the moments between waking and sleeping. A scenario suddenly flips, leaving us queasily reeling.

Put simply, Harrogate is an exploration of a father’s uneasy infatuation with his teenage daughter, but with none of the sensation you might expect. Nick Sidi as the middle-aged man struggling with his daughter’s nascent sexuality is a complex and conflicted character, torn agonisingly between nostalgia and desire. He longs for the partner he once had in his youth, rather than the spouse he now shares his life with, while beginning to see the child they have created together from a new and disturbing perspective.

The excellent Sarah Ridgeway is wife, daughter and fantasy – sometimes in separate scenes, sometimes not. In each of the play’s three sections, she appears in a slightly different guise, but casting, text and staging all encourage slippages. From the moment the show first catches us off balance, we can never be entirely sure what we’re watching, while echoes and repetitions reverberate between scenes. It’s disquieting, but never wilfully taboo-busting – quite a feat, given the subject matter.

“What if we’re all paper thin and painted over?” asks the daughter at one point in Harrogate. It’s a description that might fit any of the fragile characters in these three plays, from the men dodging their emotions in So Here We Are to the non-person at the centre of BRENDA. And it’s a fitting coincidence that in the year HighTide reinvents itself, creating a real festival atmosphere as it spreads across the ridiculously picturesque seaside town of Aldeburgh, its programme is also interrogating notions of identity.

Photo: Nobby Clark.

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Fireworks (Al’ab Nariya), Royal Court

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Fireworks is an exercise in dislocation. From its first, flashbulb bursts of light, we are shoved slightly off-kilter. With deft simplicity, Dalia Taha’s play and Richard Twyman’s production wrench us into the fear and uncertainty of war-ravaged Palestine, a suspended present moment in which nothing can be relied upon. Violence shades into playground games and make-believe shimmers with menace.

At the same time, we are always set at one remove. We can never forget that we are, after all, just watching, choosing to spend an interval of our privileged lives in this simulated state of precariousness. We can see the clearly demarcated outlines of Lizzie Clachan’s self-contained bunker of a set, a picture frame opening out onto another world. It might as well be the firework display that its title references; an explosive diversion, one that may leave us rattled but that we can walk away from nonetheless.

This closeness and distance, this sense that we walk in the characters’ shoes but can throw them off at any point, is crucial to how Fireworks functions. We need to be there, with the action, but at the same time always uncomfortably aware of the huge chasm that safely separates us from what is being depicted. We can be transported, but only temporarily, conscious all the while that our shaken responses cannot possibly be enough.

Almost everything happens in the deserted apartment building so vividly represented by Clachan’s design: all exposed pipes and wires, corners cluttered with the detritus of living. The side-by-side existence of two families, eschewing the questionable safety of public shelters for the claustrophobic refuge of home, is here compressed into one space, their lives overlapping and interweaving in the single, dingy room.

Taha’s play is anchored by the two children at its centre, both teetering on the brink of adulthood at the same time as staring down death on a daily basis. The familiar contours of childhood are mapped onto violent, shifting terrain. Like so many other youngsters, Khalil and Lubna play at being soldiers, but their games are unnervingly close to home, throwing back sharp reflections of the conflict they are surrounded by. Khalil’s favourite is the checkpoint game, one played out with chilling brutality.

Adults play too. Khalil’s mother attempts to coax him into childish fantasies, desperate to preserve their brittle shared innocence. The two women find fleeting respite in a game of skipping. Lubna’s father tells her that the rockets lighting up the horizon are just fireworks, a fiction that he seems to take more comfort from than his solemn, perceptive daughter does. Roles are reversed.

Through these playful coping mechanisms and loving deceptions, the lines between reality and fiction become increasingly blurred. Dreams, too, acquire unusual importance, representing a world beyond everyday reality – be that in the afterlife or up among the clouds. With the wall dividing the living from the dead so perilously thin, Taha vividly captures the importance of believing in an existence beyond the final bomb blast or hail of bullets; those lost in the conflict are always martyred, never killed.

If it all sounds a little amorphous, that’s because it is. There is little shape to Taha’s play, which instead lurches from one scene to the next. Given the circumstances, however, it feels utterly apt. The impression created – by everything from the restless performances to Natasha Chivers’ flickering lights – is of delicate moments carved out of an extended, indefinite zone of uncertainty. In the knowledge that everything could come crashing down at any moment, these small exchanges, these little sparks of connection, take on painful, nerve-shattering significance.