The Arcola Theatre has another new space, an industrial building behind the present one, which officially opens in July as Studio K but is now the site for this promenade production which takes its audiences back to 1957 and the village of Seascale on the Cumbrian coast, where the Windscale nuclear reactors and Calder Hall nuclear power station had been built in the preceding years. It's relevant, for those who may not be aware, that in October that year a fire destroyed the core of one of the Windscale Piles releasing radioactive material into the environment, including Iodine-131, which can by taken up by the thyroid gland. Nearly fifty years later, in 2005, a Magnox reprocessing plant on the same site leaked radioactive waste. Soil samples taken by Greenpeace over 11km from the site were found in tests by scientists at Bremen University to have radioactive contamination with Americium-241 400 times higher than those taken the same distance from Chernobyl.
In 1957 milk and other farm produce in surrounding areas had to be destroyed - but what about the people? Writer and director John Harrigan here presents a poetic look at the effects. Note his title Cirxus, a mutation from Circus, for here he presents a group of characters from a circus changed by their exposure to radiation. They inhabit a barren industrial space with some boxed in areas making small rooms. An elephant painted on a wall is a reminder of the animal acts, a banner or sign indicates a side show but you are not here to see their performance in the ring. A bath full of sand, some palettes with beach toys are a reminder that this is by the seaside, strings of coloured lights are a sad reminder of past brightness.
As visitors, the audience are handed their instructions: the Factory Rules.
- Strictly no talking on site.
- If you're clocking off you can't come back on site until tomorrow.
- Do not feed the AFANC.
- Do not touch the blue lady unless wearing U.K.A.E.A. approved Radiation Shielding Garments
- Do not swim in the Black Pool.
It all seems very promising. A gypsy hovers near the doorway. She may stop you and read your palm. Later you see her casting bones, dancing wildly in a corner or she may even sidle up behind you and stroke your neck. Yes, it gets that intimate. Performers often speak so softly, well below normal levels, that you have to get up really close to hear what they are saying - and even then it may be in a language or an accent that is incomprehensible.
There are various figures about the space: a girl in a striped leotard, a man (perhaps the ringmaster, though he later claims to be a sailor) slumped against a wall, a girl lying on the ground in the tattered tutu of an equestrienne. The equestrienne is Athalia and she is trying to find her boyfriend, a clown called Loudon, who turns up later having been on a journey into the Black Pool. You'll also meet a strong man whose fingers were bitten off by a bear and who has lost his strength, a woman who bites, an ordinary seeming mother and her strange daughter, a demented lady whose diary has been purloined, an American Sunday School teacher with a blackboard chalked with physics formulae who sings a jolly hymn telling us that 'Jesus hits like an atomic bomb' and is trying to convert the pagan land of England to American Science, and other strange characters,
Scenes play out simultaneously. It is up to you to follow which characters you want. For those who start the show at 8.30 rather than 9.00 pm there is a chance to catch some they missed because the last segment is a virtual replay of the opening half hour. What you make of it all is entirely up to you. There is some fine language: 'I want to spew up undigested truth,' cries one character, though you won't necessarily always understand it. There are some strong performances - and it's not easy to maintain sincerity and character when you are acting in such close proximity, though the intimacy is occasionally allowed to flare into grand histrionics.
This is a show that is often baffling but always intriguing. When something starts to lose your interest you can switch to another episode. I didn't find any Black Pool or see the Blue Lady - though since she's listed in the programme perhaps she was the one in black with a boa and a bloody chin. I can't identify all the performers from the programme, which doesn't even list the clown, so I can't give individuals credit, but they all deserve the applause that the production denies the audience from giving - there is no curtain call.
Whether the show actually has anything to say is another matter. Do we really need reminding that nuclear power is dangerous? Perhaps there is a generation that never went on an Aldermaston March and has grown up since Chernobyl that does. Somewhere in there I sense a message that any acceptance of nuclear generation itself corrupts us. It is telling us to face the truth, but it is in danger of being too deliberately inexplicit. Are the makers just a little dazzled by their own pretentions? Perhaps, if a statement on YouTube by one of the performers partly responsible for the sound score is anything to go by: 'The music is a sonic and psionic evocation of the Godz of stasis, of Marduk and of the Atomic Age You will not die, for by listening, you have undergone de-contamination. Now, only through the temporal space and psionic locality of Cirxus may you emerge from the Black Pool.' I think they probably believe they have achieved much more than is actually on display, but don't let that stop you from going, especially if you know you like this sort of thing -- just don't expect clarity or the luxury of a story.
Until 13th June 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton