From time to time, I’ve tried to keep up a policy of investigating some of the offerings variously described as children’s or family or Young People’s online theatre. Indeed a couple of weeks ago I began publishing a separate list of such material to make finding things a bit simpler. Realising it had been some time since I’d done so, I headed back to the specialist Half Moon Theatre website to see what was new; I’d previously visited back in April and seen two very good plays so I had high hopes. I noticed that there were a pair of productions which involved Brolly, a collaboration between designer/illustrator Rachana Jadhav and writer/director Dominic Hingorani for whom design is a key element and who integrate live performance with digital technologies.
The first piece is Guantanamo Boy based on a celebrated novel by Anna Perera. It is a disturbing political drama with Kafkaesque overtones in which a classic case of the wrong person being in the wrong place at the wrong time has disturbing consequences. Khalid is 15 and from Rochdale; he’s into computer games, football, rap music and girls (not necessarily in that order) and lives a relatively carefree existence.
The death of a relative means the family have to go to Pakistan much to Khalid’s annoyance. While looking for his father there, the boy gets swept up in a demonstration and is thrown into prison as a terrorist. It will be two years before he gets out and when he does he will be a completely different young man. It is the sort of play which could provoke plenty of discussion with young people, but it is definitely not for the faint hearted.
Antonio Khela plays Khalid and conveys the trauma which he undergoes with sensitivity and skill. At the start he is just an ordinary teenager whose only experience of the darker side of life is through shoot ‘em up games he plays on his computer when he should be doing his homework. The terrors which await in incarceration are unimaginable to him (and indeed us) but somehow he survives interrogation, deprivation and psychological abuse; in one very unsettling scene we even see him experiencing waterboarding.
Khela’s earlier characterisation of an unremarkable boy makes the horror of his experience even more acute. The three other cast members double characters – Bhawha Bhawsar as Khalid’s mother and fellow detainee, Abdul is particularly impressive. The latter stages of the play feel particularly claustrophobic in this version which has been filmed without an audience and some of it evidently with handheld equipment. This gives the piece, well directed by Hingorani, a sense of immediacy and a fluidity which would have been difficult to achieve with fixed cameras. There’s some interesting use of technology in the backdrop screens but nothing particularly innovative; this a piece that tends to concentrate on the human element.
The second piece her, however, is technologically very accomplished, in fact it is really the main reason for watching. Highly innovative use of green screen gives the play the look and feel of a graphic novel brought to life and means that backdrops are constantly changing and evolving which along with atmospheric lighting (Phil Clarke) gives the production an epic scope impossible to achieve otherwise. It also means that the performers can interact with those appearing on screen. In point of fact, there is only one performer, Shala Nyx who plays all characters both those live and those filmed. Onstage she becomes a series of young women/girls caught up in a situation where conflict has made “her” homeless and rootless; Nyx’s chameleon- like ability to transform herself is thrilling to watch. Her appearances onscreen are no less accomplished and expert timing on the actor’s part means she interacts with herself creating a vivid picture of the victims that conflict produces. Especially chilling is when she appears as a male coach driver distributing his seats for sexual favours. This scene contains a heavily signposted indication of rape which, while it might provoke debate, seems a step too far for the age group indicated.
Although I could fully appreciate the innovative design, the technical skill and, above all, Nyx’s ability to create engaging characters, the overall concept and, especially, the plotline is muddled and confusing. The script is prosaic enough at the start with a simple scene of a girl sitting outside her home discussing her evening with her unseen and unheard mother but as the play progressed I found myself becoming exasperated as an attempt to coat everything with a layer of absurdism just became alienating. By the end of the play I had “lost the plot” completely and although the language in the final scene was highly poetic, I struggled with the meaning. I’d be interested to know what the young people at whom it is aimed made of the whole thing but to me, I’m afraid, it became a triumph of style over substance.