Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Crave / Illusions

Sarah Kane / Ivan Viripaev (translated by Cazimir Liske)
Actors Touring Company
York Theatre Royal

The cast in Crave Credit: Nina Sologubenko
The cast in Illusions Credit: Nina Sologubenko

Sarah Kane's fourth play, Crave, debuted in 1998 under Vicky Featherstone's direction and the pseudonym Marie Kelvedon. Those familiar with 4.48 Psychosis will have some idea of the lilting, shifting poetry of the piece, with its flashes of clarity and sense amongst the snatched, abstract phrases. Illusions, a recent play by a writer well established in his native Russia but hitherto unperformed in Britain, is much less familiar but in many ways an apt companion.

One question suggested by both pieces is why they need to be performed in a theatrical setting, rather than simply left on the page: what makes them necessarily theatre pieces rather than a short story (in the case of Illusions) or a poem (in the case of Crave). But both, I feel, are indeed theatrical.

For a start, Crave in particular is a phenomenal feat of concentration and physical, mental and vocal control for the four actors. Standing on the brink of the stage's drop to the stalls, and lit only by occasionally altering white washes of varying intensity and focus, Derbhle Crotty, Cazimir Liske, Rona Morison and Jack Tarlton give performances of equal, admirable intensity. They barely move during the recitation of the piece, which lasts well over half an hour (it is difficult to tell exactly how long for sure: time is elastic in the moment).

And this is one of the reasons this is a play rather than a poem on the page: like Beckett, this performance reminds you of the presence of the body through its (apparent) non-use, its immaculate control. Given Kane's absence of stage directions and contextualisation, this is, of course, largely director Ramin Gray's choice, and it is an illuminating one. Furthermore, moments of (dark) levity and thought-provoking insight are lifted out in performance in ways which are by no means evident on the page. This is unquestionably part of Kane's writing—she seeks clear theatrical effects through the formulation and distribution of these lines—but ably realised by Gray's direction and the cast's execution.

Ivan Viripaev's Illusions is at first glance a completely different proposition. But the piece provides fascinating parallels and chimes with Kane's. In this half of the evening, Gray quite literally turns the tables on the audience, with our on-stage seats providing an unimpeded view out over the stalls—a perspective almost exactly that of the actors in the pre-interval performance. The setting is more intimate, the performers taking seats in front of us, smilingly and conversationally telling us the story of two ageing couples at the moments of their death, and vignettes from earlier in their lives.

The twists and turns of the various stories are endearing, wry and thought-provoking—and not nearly as sentimental as the set-up may suggest; the piece is aptly titled. The impressive translation, by Cazimir Liske, who also performs, strums guitar and sings, is fluid, human and humorous. Despite the writing's post-dramatic inheritances, this is the easier piece to connect with—to love.

Yet it is also less essentially a performance than Kane's play. One element that does however lift it beyond simply the words on the page is the insistence that the story is itself told by two male and two female performers. It is impossible not to feel that this suggests echoes, in a loose, allusive rather than literal way, of the couples in the narrative itself. That these, and many other considerations, are left unresolved is one of the appeals of the piece, of Gray's direction, and of the pairing of the plays. And the performers again play the piece impeccably, with warmth and superb timing and control. Not an easy evening in the theatre, but a special one.

Tours to Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 25 - 26 May 2012

Reviewer: Mark Smith