Present (row by row left to right from top): Zara Tomkinson; Colin Ellwood; Paul Hamilton; David Whitworth; Rachel Bavidge; John Chancer; Ami Sayers; Susan Raasay; Kevin McMonagle; Charlotte Pyke; Emmanuela Lia; Valerie Gogan/Simon Usher
Exploring three fragile and challenged ecosystems on Friday, each fragile in different ways. Briefly, the post-9/11 USA in Kia Corthron’s very short, succinct 7/11, in which an already warped and compromised US constitutional settlement is buckled perhaps beyond breaking point by fallout from the twin-towers attack. A black man named Mohamed and a long-term-interned-without-due-process ‘Arab man’, also named Mohamed (‘Mohamed 1 and Mohamed 2’ – a tacit acknowledgment that the system sees them as overlapping iterations of the same ‘problem’) share a penitentiary cell in 2002. The former seems inured to his inurement, shooting improvised hoops with paper cup and rolled-up sock; the latter, established for ten years in the States as a refugee from Sadaam’s Iraq, waits for his lawyer to help him back to his family and his struggling New York corner grocery store – a 7/11. The black man's resignation encompasses historic, baked-in US racial prejudice, while the Arab man hopes and hustles, believes in the system, only for his attorney to break the news of his likely deportment on a pretext of the tiniest of visa infractions. Constitutional quotes from the founding fathers swirl around, partly comfort-mantras for the men and partly an ironic indictment of the system, also offering historical perspective and context. Two different trajectories of injustice, one involving a kind of burying alive at the bottom of the system, the other, more recently embarked on, a potential expulsion into a stateless void. The patina and echo of two American lives (respectively, citizen by birth and by naturalisation), condensed into a single moment, emblematic but individuated, with these two aspects held in productive tension. In this richly nuanced, compacted play/scene, the tensions are not just between the system and the men, but also between the born-American and the immigrant-American. Different kinds of entitlement and citizenship amongst the comparatively unentitled, in a time of uneasy transition and trauma. Fear and Misery in New York.
The fair point is made by a participant in the session that there are no black or Arabic-heritage actors present. Performers of these and other minority heritages are regular and also occasional participants in the reading group, and each session is booked on a first-come-first-served basis. Attendance (and inclusion on the invitation list) is open to all who self-identify as ‘working actors’, and the ethos of the group is that everyone is able to play/read everything….with best efforts made to ensure that everyone present gets equal opportunities to read. But is there something more/different to be done?
Next up is Noel Coward’s one-act Star Chamber. 1930s theatrical luminaries congregate in a West End theatre for a charitable committee in support of an actors’ retirement home. Coward writes with extraordinary detail, delicacy and observation, and also with a well-developed sense of the absurd, especially for the micro-frictions and manoeuvrings between attendees. Beyond all this, however, is his love, savour, rich appreciation and understanding of the characters and of the deeply-evolved and mutually understood processes of the theatre itself. These beings are delicately held in the palm of Coward's hand like night visitors; exotic and delicate fauna congregating at the watering hole. The single-scene action animates a beautifully maintained ensemble, a choir of wonderfully blended/differentiated voices, and the play has the naturalistic logic and strict discipline dictated by the arriving to, conducting of and departing from the committee. A channelling of the ghosts of West End past…..that also touches on the melancholy of aging (the actors in the retirement home, the possible future of all the committee members). Also, these ghosts inhabits a geographical and professional landscape very familiar to us (the named theatres of course still there…), echoing now more resonantly in current Covid-evacuated conditions. At one point in the play an intensely eccentric and child-like older actress, made genial fun of by Coward, describes her acting process…
Nothing puts me off really once I start, because I shut off absolutely everything, but the getting to the shutting-off stage is sheer misery – you have to mean so much yourself before you can begin to make the play mean whatever it ought to mean – you see what I mean?
Which is of course a very fair statement of a serious and effective (and very recognisable) way of working, as Coward clearly knows and fully appreciates. The reading itself is a temperately relished delight
Finally, the first part of Gerlind Reinshagen’s Sunday’s Children trilogy, set (over the three parts of which we read the first) in a small German town from the early part of WW2 to it’s cataclysmic conclusion. The family and associates of a provincial pharmacist; the teenaged generation looking at that of their parents’, witnessing initially-patriotic, but complex attitudes shift and curdle, blended with a plangent account of the timeless journey from adolescence to adulthood. This is writing of huge power and nuance, infused with mystery almost to the density of a dream state, slowly becoming a nightmare. The father is discovered having an affair with the maid, and subsequently enlists; the daughter is confronted by the horribly disfigured tank soldier she has been writing to, in the process lying about her age and identity. On meeting her, he thinks she is her own younger sister. In this play the insight runs very deep: no character reaction or response is conventionalised or as might be expected, yet each seems revelatory and true. Following the daughter’s discovery of her father’s affair with the maid, she asks the latter for some insight into her father’s inexplicable decision to enlist, but (despite the latter’s sexual relationship) the response is that such issues are too intimate for her to ask him about. Overall, a poignant and compassionate sense of transition; a savouring of life, its richness and evanescence, and especially of the joys and bafflements of youth, within the distant and progressively-encroaching sound of drums; a valediction for a world rich in history, tradition and community about to be lost forever. A kind of theatrical Buddenbrooks., but richly Chekovian in its clear eyed, premonitory compassion
Reinshagen does for her unknowingly-fragile world what Coward does for the West End in Star Chamber, and what Corthron implies for the vanished world of the idealised US commonwealth in 7/11.