Emerge Production House
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James sits on the floor of the flat he shares with Monya, at the top of a tower block in Notting Hill, staring intently at a wobbly column of Jenga blocks. It’s a fitting metaphor for the delicate manoeuvring and negotiating that is needed in his precarious relationship with Moyna, which veers fragilely between desire and destruction.
One might describe their apartment as ‘bohemian’, or simply ‘dishevelled’—like James himself with his scruffy hair, stubble and grubby Tube-map underpants. Moyna, a Turkish immigrant, is an artist, and her canvasses lean haphazardly against the back wall; the table at which James squats is strewn with pieces of fruit and bric-a-brac; oddments and underwear lay around the room.
Moyna’s arrival—through a sort of ‘portal’ (there’s some galactic and time travel here)—stridently disrupts the silence. There’s been a fracas as a result of a misunderstanding in the vegetable aisle in the local supermarket and Moyna is now wanted for manslaughter. When the knock at the door comes, and two cops, Tom & Jerry (yes, really), bust through the paper-front door, the red suitcase into which she stuffs herself won’t protect her. Nor can James help her overcome the challenges that she faces as an immigrant struggling both to overcome the alienation and to deal with past traumas. Can she integrate and fathom out how to survive the cultural collisions she encounters each day? Will their relationship survive?
Well, the audience get a chance to determine the answer to those and other questions, because Eleonor Schumann’s debut play, Hayfever, which was showcased in 2019 at the Playground Theatre as a part of RebelFest and then presented at the Theatre Peckham Fringe in 2022, invites our interaction. About 10 minutes into this immersive production, David Abécassis’s circus ringmaster—his grey, flared suit setting off a garish '70s shirt, and his heavily kohled eyes glistening fervently—leaps into the driving seat, giving audience members the chance to decide whether James and Moyna’s domestic tiff really should conclude with her manhandling of his sensitive parts.
There’s a top hat and a bowler hat, Abécassis explains—with a manic glee—and when the action freezes, dipping into one or other will give us the power to command a particular character to deliver a monologue or a song, or a ‘Feelicalise’ (which is apparently a term for an ‘action sequence’), in order to enter the characters’ inner feelings or simply steer the action in the direction we wish. In practice, it’s not that simple. Actors planted in the audience largely do the choosing, and the lively soundtrack (music produced by Nano Sigo) isn’t going to be diverted by random audience whims and caprices. It’s rather frustrating, not that far into the drama, to realise that ‘interaction’ isn’t quite what it seems here.
There is one way, though, in which the audience really do get to participate, and that’s when parts of the set—all the props and costumes are second-hand—are literally put up for sale, as Abécassis turns himself into an impassioned auctioneer. A Jenga woodblock goes for £20; boisterous bidding pushes the price of a painting—by a fringe artist—up to £60. This is a ‘zero waste’ show, everything is up for grabs, and the audience can buy into the concept. This seems rather ironic given that the play seems to be suggesting that the way individuals, and artists, are subsumed within interactional, capitalist environments needs to be challenged.
Abécassis works hard to sustain the concept of the drama and its execution, and his command of physical theatre is excellent. But, even he flags at times and forgets to exaggerate his French accent, or to go through the pretence of pulling a name from one of the hats. It seems appropriate that in the middle of the play he gets ‘sacked’ by his ‘moon masters’, though he strives on valiantly. John-Christian Bateman is a droll Tom (and assistant director), Brandon Boruch an ebullient Jerry. The mix of nationalities and accents is both energising and a bit baffling at times. Not all the text is delivered with clarity.
As Beckett has shown us, there can be profundity in absurdity. And, the fantastic can make the imaginary ‘real’, and encourage us to interrogate our experiences in new ways. But there needs to be some recognition and empathy. It’s hard to ‘care’ that much about many of the characters in Hayfever. I found Maja Bloom’s Polish landlady particularly irritating as she dished out birthday regalia—decorated paper plates and silly hats—and pranced around with a feather boa. Late in the drama, Anastasia Thiras (also assistant director) leaves her chair in the audience ranks to make a loud but not very comprehensible intrusion into affairs. And, at the end of the day, do we really care whether Moyna should or should not commit murder on a train platform?
Feride Morçay certainly does convey some of Moyna’s cultural alienation and distress (if only she’d stop lodging her hands on her hips like a sitcom battle-axe from the 1970s), and Matthew Rainsberry not only presents a convincing portrait of James’s urban confusion but also demonstrates fine musicianship as a singer-guitarist. It’s a pity that the dialogue doesn’t help them to develop richer characterisation. To Moyna’s despairing question why it’s possible for someone to flip overnight from wanting to spend their life with someone to believing it’s all over, James can only respond, “it’s not you, it's me...”
Hayfever is Roxane Cabassut’s debut theatre directing credit (and she makes a cameo appearance, bopping and ‘crooning’ through one of the interpolated songs). Hopefully she will learn that less can be more. This show is too long, too fragmented and too unfocused, but it does have something to say. It’s adventurous, inventive and, in many ways, joyful. Many will, I’m sure, find it both fun and illuminating.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour