Review: However Belligerent the Cactus

Tom Chandler 4 May 2022
Image Credit: Hannah Castle

As a queer devotee to the aesthetic of dark academia, Peter Rusafov’s new play “However Belligerent the Cactus” really hooked me in. The play promises a challenging love story; a young man finds himself caught between his politician boyfriend, Lockie, and the ideals which would seem forever out of reach if it were not for John, an unaccomplished writer and friend of Lockie’s. The piece certainly delivers on the premise, with true flashes of brilliance along the way.

My first note upon walking into the Corpus was how ambitious the set was for a Corpus Late Show; the ground is covered with carpet, a bed, drawers, stacks of books, a record player, a bedside lamp – all of it is what I would expect of a Corpus Main, so I take my hat off to the team who managed to get it all into place in what can often be a short changeover. Overall the set really helped the naturalistic, domestic atmosphere of the script. The actors enter and the play gets off to a really strong start. Perhaps too strong; the central couple, Lockie (Sawen Ali) and Artem (Jenny Cyffin-Jones) almost immediately launch into an argument, and it’s a tension which the pair struggle to climb down from, with the first tender signs of affection between the two only appearing a considerable amount of time later. Nonetheless, Ali and Cyffin-Jones are strong actors, with the former possessing the real conviction of a politician and the latter making a convincingly naive teenager. What really elevated these two was the introduction of John (Clara Springman), whose performance was thoroughly charismatic and you could really tell as an audience member why a young man could become so enamoured with such a figure.

My first quibble however – the quite confusing directorial decision to have all the actors speak in English accents. Now, I know that there have been some questionable American accents to grace the Cambridge stage (myself included), but Rusafov’s script is so entrenched in America; Lockie’s one desire is to win an election and because of this his opening speech is so fundamentally entrenched in the American political system, that to hear it in an English accent was jarring. Even when Artem and John discuss literature, it’s so clearly the American classics – even the show’s title is a quote from famous American writer Frank O’Hara. This, joined with the tell-tale signs that the person pretending to smoke on stage has clearly never been a regular smoker, created a weird uncanny valley, where the actors were just a little bit too present in some aspects, but completely convincing in others.

The other burning question I had was why precisely were Artem and Lockie together, and why had they been for so long? We do get one glimpse of how their relationship began, but there is no real spark there which I can see keeping Artem with Lockie; Lockie is not caring enough for Artem to reasonably want to stay, but not controlling enough for Artem to be unable to leave. I’ve had enough of these relationships myself to know there’s always something that keeps you seeing the good in the situation, but the lack of a spark is just made all the more obvious by the fantastic chemistry between Artem and John.

This relationship is where the show really shines on all fronts – the chemistry between these two is electric, their dialogue flows naturally, the lighting reacts delicately to their growing relationship, the blocking is dynamic and driven, they have provoking discussions about artistry, politics and philosophical concepts. Springman and Cyffin-Jones are really allowed to shine in their performances, with a real sense of depth. When the pair dance it really feels like the culmination of every single element of the play – it’s truly stirring and made me feel seen.

From a production perspective, the lighting had moments of brilliance, with the usage of the projector to create a gobo-like effect being a stroke of genius from their technician (who is unfortunately uncredited on the Camdram). A major issue, which is relatively common, was the lack of coverage downstage, and no light at all coming from one side of the rig, often leaving faces half in the dark or entirely if they faced the wrong direction. I have already praised how much the set carries the atmosphere of the play, but I did find it hard to buy that it was Lockie’s house, as everything about it seemed much more in line with the literature-driven aesthetes John and Artem. Nonetheless, it was a feat within itself for Cody Knight to completely hide the Main Show’s artificial grass.

The show’s most difficult to excuse flaw, however, is the blindspot it has to the age differences between the characters; admittedly, the characters were not played as old as they could have been, at times having the youthful vigour of 30 year olds, but nonetheless I was somewhat surprised at how the fact that Artem is still a teenager whilst Lockie is in his mid-40s was not as fully addressed as an exploitative relationship as I had hoped. These relationships absolutely are more common among queer people, and I was glad to see a more true to life representation in that sense, but the breakdown of the relationship seemed to ultimately come down to differences in political beliefs and life goals, and not the fact that is was clearly predatory.

Despite this, “However Belligerent the Cactus” is a good play with moments of real brilliance from every member of the crew, which really makes it a must-see, and a cracking way to kick off Easter Term in the Corpus Playroom.

4 Stars. 

“However Belligerent the Cactus” by Peter Rusafov is on in the Corpus Playroom at 9:30 until Saturday the 7th May. Tickets may be bought here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/however-beligerent-the-cactus/