Review: Mist: Diazepam

Rose Aitchison 25 October 2017

Mist: Diazepam, a special show on Monday and Tuesday of this week at the Howard Theatre in Downing College, was not exactly special.  Carina Harford and Rose Aitchison, TCS Theatre Editors, discuss their impressions of the play:

Rose:  As a fan of Brecht and of cabaret in its classical form, I was excited to see how writers and directors Johnny King and Carine Valarche would transpose this genre of theatre into a dystopian setting. However, not only did the writing of the songs and plot lack originality or adherence to the genre, the venue, which is so key to the genre of cabaret, felt utterly wrong. Cabaret is normally and traditionally produced in a space that incorporates a bar, a seating area (normally with tables or groupings of chairs), and a stage or designated performance area, from which the performers can easily descend to interact with the audience. Unfortunately, the Howard Theatre, while beautiful, is a Proscenium Arch theatre, with a very distinct acting area and audience area (into which we were forbidden to bring our drinks, as per the house rules). As such, the play in the context of its genre felt like it was running into problems even as we walked into the theatre. To the credit of set designer Eimear Ryan-Charleton, a bar was recreated onstage, with regulars slumped over their drinks bickering with one another. However, the detachment this arrangement caused was not the verfremdungseffekt generally desired from traditional cabaret, but rather a sense of the action taking place away from the audience, in an imagined world which we were not always made to care very much about by the writing or direction. Indeed, when two characters were murdered rather unexpectedly, I found it quite hard within my own suspension of disbelief to care that this had happened after the couple of lines of dialogue that they were allotted.

Carina: Agreed. Unfortunately the location did not lend itself at all to the concept of interactive theatre. That said, I thought it picked up a bit when they started shooting each other. If you’re going for ‘edgy’, randomly murdering characters is, I suppose, a plus. I thought it was quite funny when they all died at the end too, but I don’t think I was supposed to. My main criticism is that immersive theatre needs to be immersive. The first room we were ushered into had some booze, which was good, some actors wandering around and failing, on the most part, to interact, and some gold mannequins with particularly wavy trimmings. I felt uncomfortable, not because the experience was so visceral or unexpected, but because it was deeply underwhelming. If you are going to be irreverent, please actually be irreverent. Set fire to something. Smear something horrific into the curtains. I feel I have to say this too often, but those gold mannequins from King’s Bunker are not a stand-in for interesting decoration or set design. When we moved into the actual theatre, the semblance of immersion was entirely ruined. The location was completely wrong for a show like this, and the one attempt to awkwardly dance with three members of the audience is not the same thing as an immersive show.

Rose: Absolutely- if you're going to go for something, really go for it. For me, another rather unfortunate aspect of the play was the sloppiness of execution. The dystopian world which was meant to be the premise of the play was mentioned about five times, and the set and costume at times made ‘Mist’ feel more like several people dressed in their Arcsoc outfits in a branch of Costa Coffee than the last bar on Earth. Despite the impressive acrobatics on display from Sharla Petterson, Auréliane Pierret and Daphne Chia, which were undoubtedly the highlights of the show, the original songs were rather monotonous. The sound overall seemed to be a bit of an issue – there was a live pianist who seemed to disappear partway through, and there was none of the ambient music which helps to lubricate the gaps between songs in most cabaret. Compounding the problems with a lack of a cohesive visual aesthetic, there wasn’t really a cohesive aesthetic for lighting or sound either. While the distortion effect on the microphone used by many characters was nice, the choice of music felt a bit random. The lighting effects used were really rather irritating – the house lights were brought up every time a song finished, which really broke the suspension of disbelief and distracted from the action every time it happened. I also really felt that more could have been made of the impressive lighting rig available to the production beyond lighting the back of the stage with a few coloured gels and employing the occasional downspot.

Carina: If you’re going to have a dystopian world, then have a dystopian world. I didn’t even know that’s what they were going for. I thought shiny clothes were just trendy on Asos last year. The movement between ‘acts’ and ‘scenes with dialogue’ was poorly devised – we had to watch the ‘acts’ getting up from their seats to awkwardly manipulate their way through a door, around a curtain and then squeeze past the bar before taking their up their marks – and frequently made little sense. The individual actors were all very good and made the most of a bad situation, but their dialogue was lacking and most spent large portions of time loitering while waiting for other dialogue to conclude or pretending to watch the cabaret acts.

Rose: Personally, what I most took issue with about this play was its title. There was a distinct lack of ‘Mist’, and what did appear in a somewhat untimely fashion in the final death throes of the cast smelt oddly of wood smoke, and prompted me and other audience members to wonder whether or not it was in fact a small fire started unintentionally at the back of the auditorium. More worryingly, ‘Diazepam’ seemed to be a word simply appropriated for the title and the name of one of the main characters because it sounded a bit ‘edgy’. Diazepam is a medication taken by thousands of people worldwide, who are prescribed it in order to manage debilitating symptoms of anxiety and alcohol withdrawal. Despite the trigger warnings given in publicity, the play’s treatment of mental illness was utterly ham-fisted. The only speech properly dedicated to it felt like a diatribe of a middle-class-private-school-south-of-England-white-boy, who has just seen ‘Trainspotting’ for the first time and thinks that Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ speech is about him because they both read Nietzsche.

Carina:  As Rose says, including reference to mental illness was something this play seemed to do in order to create an air of ‘edginess’ or relevance to the ‘student experience’ (?!). Calling your characters ‘Sydney Diazepam’ and ‘Peta Blocker’ etc is not the same thing as actually theatrically considering mental illness. As someone who takes anti-depressants, I find it slightly irritating that this play thought it was a good idea to use psychiatric drug names for their characters, which in a way reduces the person to their medication? Hello, I’m Sertraline.

Overall, I think my biggest question is ‘what was the point?’ Were we there to see some good acting, singing and dancing? In that case, it was good. The actors were good at acting, the singers at singing, the dancers at dancing. Good stuff.  If I was there for ‘an immersive theatre experience with frequent references to addiction, depression, medication and escapism’ with ‘gunshots, pyrotechnics, reference to sexual abuse and moments of immersive audience participation’, then it was not good.

An excellent point from another audience member was that this would have worked better as a short film. The publicity campaign was deeply cinematic and well-executed, and the form of the play, which involved two relatively separate dialogues interspersed by cabaret ‘acts’ would perhaps be suited to film, where these scenes could be focused on without continuing to see the other actors, waiting awkwardly on the sides or pretending to talk to each other.

Rose: ‘Mist: Diazepam’ was just a bit of a let-down, and the company needs to do some serious rethinking before they put on the future events they have planned.