Audience imprisoned Far Away in English Faculty Basement

24 January 2008

Far Away by Caryl Churchill, Newnham Anonymous Players

Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, 19th-20th January 2008, 9pm

Reviewer Annabel Banks

4 Stars

For those who have yet to visit it, the Judith E. Wilson studio is a hidden gem on the theatre scene. This undersized black cube (with no stage or seating) forces what can be a prosaic relationship between actor and audience into something different. Space to perform and signifiers for scene changes /end of performance (for there is no curtain to drop, no height to bow from), all demand their own innovation. The Newnham Anonymous Players, helmed by Lisa Jeschke, really rolled up their sleeves and spat on their hands before tackling this. The result was impressive.

Far Away is a play with its foot on the accelerator, and this momentum was driven home by every member of the cast. It begins simply – a girl has woken; a strange house, an unfamiliar bed – and the sight of her uncle beating people with an iron bar. Lit only by a torch, the actors moved slowly, carefully; the somnolent voice of the aunt attempts to reassure. As the excuses became more and more implausible the audience was invited to consider its own needs for safety and security, for wanting to believe what we are told.

Time passed, and as trials were televised, bodies burnt, relationships started and hats decorated, the audience, too, wanted to be reassured, to sent back to bed, or at least to be able to switch off, turn away – but it was too late. We were tricked. From the moment we took our places on the floor we became part of the play; the disingenuous manipulation of audience into scenery had given us something else to focus on besides the figures from nightmare, ropes around their necks, whispering incoherently to us as we entered the studio. The closing of this circle created an inverted theatre-in the-round, and we were caught, forced to face the ignoble truth about war, enemies, fear and atrocity.

It’s rare that theatre unnerves me, but by the time the production reached its crescendo I was definitely flinching. Actors careering between small groups of audience members, strobe lights and effective use of audio created a wrong-footedness that reinforced the messages that Churchill weaves into her challenging piece. Although some lines were lost in the resultant craziness, which prevented complete understanding of how the play ended, the intensity of the cast efficiently conveyed the emotion. As part of the Amnesty International programme this production was unusual, thought-provoking, and fittingly disconcerting.