Find the Way
Playwright and Dramaturg Sarah Reyhani
Virgule Performing Arts Company
Theatre Royal Stratford East
For this production by a visiting Iranian company the stage of the Theatre Royal becomes a small studio theatre where the audience become observers of a sort of live computer game of the very simplest sort and some of them get to play it. A young woman wants to dance in front of other people. To help her do so she must be equipped in various ways to face modern life in Tehran. The audience are issued on arrival with a card giving them a new identity, complete with a job and a number. If that number comes up from a number generator on a screen they take a turn at guiding the dancer by simple and very limited instructions to move in specific directions to collect particular items.
It is not quite as simple as it sounds, for while at first the dancer moves in direct lines as told she later decides to twist about as she moves and may end up facing in a different direction requiring a rethinking of compass points. Later, an added complication is that instead of simply collecting as many of the object as possible, it becomes clear that some are irrelevant and certain ones essential. This is not explained and with the pressure of being pushed into a public exhibition some of the players were very slow to appreciate what was demanded, necessitating several different members of the audience having to play the role of 'policeman' or 'singing teacher', or 'fortune-teller' in succession, a replaying which did rather draw out the proceedings.
Quite what the purpose of all this was is very unclear. With a set of rigid rules, a gamemaster with power over players and played-with and a dancer always controlled yet showing a subversive attitud,e was this supposed to be an allegory of a woman's life in contemporary Tehran? It certainly didn't tell us anything we aren't already well aware of from the media: reinforcing stereotypical attitudes rather than enlightening us. Was it supposed to be entertainment? It certainly did not score highly as a game and though the dancer, Sara Reyhani (also credited as choreographer and Artistic Adviser,) moved nicely, she would probably have been more effective if simply allowed to dance. The piece was promoted as being about a woman whose wish to dance was frowned up, yet we spent the whole time trying to facilitate her dancing or to find a way to enable her to touch the hand of a man, another taboo.
Apparently originally conceived for performance at the Tehran City Theatre last year it actually got its premier on Wednesday night in London. Would a Tehran audience have been asked to subvert authority? Perhaps it was rethought for a British audience but it is difficult to appreciate the aims of the writer and of the director Arvand Dashtaray. They were not entirely helped by the gamemaster of Portuguese performer Antonio Pedro Lopes who needed to be much more firmly in control, his easy-going, rather giggly manner was presumably intended to be engaging but somewhat misfired, failing to generate the excitement and tension which the game element requires.
If you are going to engage an audience it seemed to me to be going against the nature of theatre to have a live performer present but then introduce them through semi-animated film clips with a pre-recorded voice who you could have had a direct human contact. While the deliberately jumpily composed scenes on film (by Mox) were at first intriguing they were largely decorative, relying on voiceovers for any content and these, especially in those sequences before the 'game' itself commenced suggested a quite different kind of work. 'Trees committed the first sin,' we were told, 'They are the darkest shadows of the soul. They cry loudest at night.' We then appeared to have a live sequence in which Eve bites the apple in Eden followed by the arrival of a tiny worm which doesn't turn out to be Satan but evolves into a man. It was all a bit self-consciously poetic but it did have a certain theatrical vigour which was lacking from the 'game' itself.
On this showing Virgule is clearly a company that likes to experiment and that's to be encouraged. This time the formula is not right nor is it particularly original as a piece of theatre. However, those of the players who scored well, and their supporters, seemed to enjoy it rather more than I did.
At Theatre Royal, Stratford East until July 11th
Reviewer: Howard Loxton