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Mad Forest

Caryl Churchill
Battersea Arts Centre
(2009)

Publicity photo

This revival of Caryl Churchill's 1990 play, written after the dramatist and a group of acting students had visited Romania only three months after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, is directed by Caroline Steinbeis as this year's winner of the JMK Award, which was set up in memory of the promising young theatre director James Menzies-Kitchen.

Designer Max Jones sets it appropriately in an empty institutional corridor-like room with plywood walls painted with a green dado, dirty wired-glass windows high above, some of them broken and roughly boarded up. It's a barren soulless place. When the revolution dawns a thin line of red light runs along the top of the dado but its cheering effect is not long-lasting. Only when the floor is bathed with light to capture a sunny day in the countryside does the atmosphere relax - even weddings are rather grey affairs.

The first part of the play takes the form of a series of short scenes, many of them presenting tiny episodes from the lives of two families. One family is that of a man working as an electrician. His wife is a tram driver, one daughter a hard-working nurse, another about to marry an American and his son an engineer. The other family is from a higher stratum: an architect and his school-teacher wife, their son a student at art school, and the two families are linked by a friendship between the sons.

With each episode introduced with a Romanian titles (thankfully also given in translation) a different facet of life under Ceausescu's regime is suggested: food shortages, the indoctrination of the education system attributing all good things to the dictator President, power cuts, anti-regime jokes, bribery to gain authority for an abortion, moments of frantic love-making, recruitment to the securitate, the beginning of protest with the art student making an anti-Ceausescu remark and alienating the others standing patiently in a queue - and among these everyday scenes and to emphasise conformity perhaps, a priest having a conversation with the Archangel Gabriel.

It is a montage, sometimes without dialogue, that Steinbeis directs with skilful variation of pace, drawing consistent and immediate performances from her cast.

A second section adds a whole range of other voices, recounting people's recall of the days of revolution from December 19th, 1989. With actors now taking up fixed positions on the stage they give what feel like, and probably are, verbatim statements, people repeating what they did or heard. They recapture the fear and lack of information as well as a sense of changing control in a powerful and moving way. "I had an empty soul," declares a young painter. There is a moment of realisation that the soldiers are not going to shoot you, they have flowers in the barrels of their weaponry; we hear of hundreds waiting at the hospital to give blood for the wounded with only fifty bottles available to hold. It is cleverly orchestrated but is in danger of being static for just a fraction too long.

The final section opens with a surreal sequence between an abandoned dog and a vampire that works both on its own level and as a metaphor for a people unused to thinking or fending for themselves, but then returns us to the two families to present a picture of the chaos and division post revolution. They voice the uncertainties as to what had actually happened, a people's revolt, a stage-managed putsch? Who were the heroes? What happens to those seen to have been part of the old regime? We even get a parodic presentation of the Ceausescus' trial and execution. In what should be a happy family wedding the underlying tensions all erupt.

It is amazing that such a vivid presentation of the aftermath of a regime's fall could have been so vividly produced so quickly when the play was originally written. Twenty years later it leaves us wanting an update but that does not reduce the power of this performance. You don't always know what is going on or catch precisely what you are being told but its confusions are part of the chaos it records and the actors give it an emotional truth that impacts on the audience.

I was particularly moved by Ian Groombridge's mute and probably handicapped orphan and Angela Terence's nurse. David Caves is an intriguing angel and Laurence Dobiesz presents a clearly differentiated priest, vampire, an officer of the securitate and an old aunt - but this is an ensemble piece with everyone doubling several roles: they all - Simon Darwen, Marilyn O'Brien, Marianne Oldham. Pippa Nixon, Nizan Sharron, Barry Ward and Alex Warren - make an important contribution to its success as does Simon Slater's music and sound score, subtly present but is often bell-like noises occasionally rising to dramatic prominence.

Until 8th August 2009

Reviewer: Howard Loxton