Other than the filmed monologue Midnight Your Time, the Donmar has been relatively quiet during the pandemic. Assembly is a new piece in a livestream experiment that mixes live action, animation and sound. Initially planned to play live at the venue last July, it has now been reconfigured as an online show but still using the Donmar Local Company at the heart of the production. Through this initiative, the theatre works with people from Camden and Westminster “to produce work that celebrates the stories and voices of our community and share programmes which use theatre as a way to encourage discussion and debate”.
The topic for that debate, in this particular instance, is the ever present one of climate change. Playwright Nina Segal sets the drama at a time when apocalypse has done its worst and humans assemble to plot out a new future. This is clearly not going to be easy as they are a rather diverse bunch, politically, socially and philosophically and it’s not long before disagreements and squabbling breaks out.
They can’t seem to decide how they want the future to look and spend rather more time saying what it is that they don’t want it to be. Someone’s worried about the pernicious effects of shoes, another is more concerned about the status of her rubbish bins and so on. So instead, they opt for that most British of institutions when they decide to take a tea break – at least that’s something they DO seem able to agree upon.
However, when the meeting resumes there’s an extra figure in the frame, the softly spoken Roy who brings with him a rather different perspective. Well, of course he does – after all he is a polar bear. He regards himself as a citizen who should be able to put his point of view especially as it his habitat that is fast disappearing. As you will divine, the tone of the piece is both quirkily whimsical and satirical at the same time.
It makes its points without being overly heavy handed and develops in surprising ways to include the thoughts of bees and mice and natural elements such as the wind and rivers. A glacier complains loudly that it is melting and even the universe itself gets involved. Interspersed between these main scenes are some satirical swipes at news programmes, even descending to the level of interviewing two people who have no expertise whatsoever other than in loudly voicing their own biased opinions.
The company of 17 start switch roles ably and interact well despite actually being in 16 locations including the theatre itself. Frankie Bradshaw’s design channels the environmental theme so there is extensive use of recyclable materials especially cardboard to represent the society which is being built and even the title cards are handwritten on carboard too. Visual interest is enhanced through the pleasing video design and photography of Andrzej Goulding which suggests a home made vibe entirely in keeping with the play’s messages. A delightful score from Max Pappenheim underpins events and Joseph Hancock’s direction smoothly pulls together the various elements.
There were some technical issues halfway through the live stream which forced an unexpected interval but that’s all in the spirit of live theatre. Fortunately, not too much momentum was lost and after the delay the broadcast picked up again and reached a successful conclusion. Whether the Donmar plan to make a recorded version of Assembly available I have no idea. Meanwhile they have another shorter filmed project called Monuments on the Donmar You Tube Channel. This reflects on the place of historical statues in today’s society and was created in the wake of last year’s protests. The Donmar have offered up a bold theatrical experiment and will, hopefully, go on to develop this strand of their work further.