The Onion Bar
Valentine's Mansion, Valentine's Park, Ilford
There was an air of mystery tour incumbent on arriving at Valentine's Mansion in the glorious Valentine's Park for The Onion Bar. The audience gathered outside Gant's Hill tube where a minibus shuttled back and forth to deposit us on the circular lawn outside this delightful Georgian building. On collecting our tickets we were handed a wad of very convincing, but nonetheless phoney, Eastern European banknotes and stewards, suitably attired as peasants, squired us around. In the makeshift café the show was already surreptitiously under way as one of the characters, Pieter Gek (Dutch for Crazy Peter), muttered to himself among the crowds of mostly young people who had turned out for the one-off event.
It was one of those theatrical occasions that had an edge that felt risky, when you feel like enforcing some sort of jocularity because you are out on a limb and don't know what to expect and how to react. Anything can happen, and, happily, it did. Anything and everything that makes for an engrossing and highly enjoyable experience. And I use the term 'experience' deliberately. No-one quite seemed to know what to expect, tantalisingly so, and the action unfurled in a manner that continuously flummoxed expectations. It had a freshness about it, an originality, that is seldom to be encountered in mainstream British theatre, and, sadly, even on the fringe.
Heralded by stewards, bossy, sweet and then bullying, in languages not amenable to the average Brit, down a dodgey stairway, we were admitted by an Eastern European mafia-style punk demanding our cash with an absolute lack of consideration for human niceties ("excuse me, I'm British, haven't you heard of politeness, like, 'please give my your money'"). This clever opening gambit precluded the type of giggles usually solicited from an audience during those cringing moments of 'participation'. He was actually quite scary, I felt like a piece of meat. And in a state of confusion we stumbled into the derelict basement of the mansion to find an installation of onions, onions, more onions, accompanied by weeping and wailing extras, curled into nooks and crannies in obvious woe, or collapsing in tears over chopping tables with more onions. And it wasn't trite. I was reminded of Robert Wilson's installation in the Clink, but with a caveat. There was a blend of profundity and irony here that Wilson, as an American, wouldn't have been able to achieve.
The audience participation in this show was very well stage-managed. Flippancy was impossible. We were crammed into the old kitchen, atmospheric in its decrepitude, and treated to passionate hugs from peasant actors, emotional outbursts in strange languages, and a young man just adjacent to me was given to confess to a 'doctor' of Asian extract and dubious credentials, that his bowel movements were irregular and accept advice and a promise of a herbal remedy for his constipation. By now, most of us had relaxed and were enjoying the spectacle and this set us up for a shock.
As we were directed from room to room tales were enacted of traumas and grief: birth, death, marriage and birthdays were the occasions for life's vicissitudes. All of this material was drawn from the cultural background of the international cast of actors and this aided the odd sense of displacement, of being a participant and a voyeur, that characterised the show.
There was something that made this particular show very special, gripping, and tipped one back and forth from mirth to fear: the actors. Seldom do I see actors of this calibre in Britain; their physical commitment was absolute, their presence, their energy, both exhilarating and dangerous. The final scene took place on an old wooden stairway, where the innocent Crazy Peter was pursued and surrounded by vicious dogs, baying for blood, bitten on his limbs and throat. It was quite impressive; I wanted to intervene, protect him, but I couldn't. It is a piece of fiction but the agony is so real, the hatred, the violence, so real. (Tarentino, eat your heart out!)
And then we were led out into the night were we all danced in a circle around the lawn, an apt finale for what seemed to constitute a ritual, Bacchanalia in its extremes of joy, grief and violence, a ritual in which we had all taken part, even in our passivity, in our inability to intervene and stop the action when at its most distressing.
This is a very clever piece of work, clever in that it seems effortless when at its most intense. But what do onions have to do with all of this? A quote from Gunter Grass, the German playwright and novelist, Nobel Prize winner, on the cans of 'Onion Juice' on sale in the café provide the clue. Grief is an emotion more amenable to the survival of the human race than the ubiquitous anger so often displayed by our species. Tears can cleanse the soul; tears are a gift. The onion, with its effects on the tear ducts, might be the way forward. (Send Bush and Blair into a French kitchen with blunt knives and make them prepare the onions for the soup!) This is a novel concept on which to hang tales of humanity, wacky enough to delight and difficult to dismiss.
Para Active is quite a remarkable company. Co-artistic directors Jade Maravala and Jonathan Grieve have nurtured this group of international actors (from Greece, Poland, Brazil, among other places), who have come together, not merely to put on shows, but to train physically on a daily basis. Their work is inspired by Grotowski's long experimentation with physical training, and other Eastern European alumni, such as Tadeusz Kantor. When was the last time you came across a company of actors in Britain that are committed to ongoing, everyday training?
It seems to me that this is a dedication to the theatre arts that must be applauded. In Britain, this type of commitment is regarded with scepticism, usually because acting is seen as a craft, not an art, and when an actor graduates from drama school, he seems to think that his shallow acquaintance with Stanislavski is all he needs to carry him through every possible character until he gets his pension. This is a fallacy that Peter Brook exposed in his book The Empty Stage in 1968 and it is a tragedy that 40-odd years on we haven't managed to transcend those 'deadly' conventions Brook despised. Ongoing growth, self-reflexivity, a lifelong learning curve are not concepts the traditional British actor understands, nor are they sponsored by the traditional, bloody-boring British director, and the Arts Council itself.
Para Active receives some small funding from Newham Council, but it's not enough. We need more of this type of theatre that can touch audiences in a way that the mainstream hasn't even dreamed of. Theatre that challenges our passivity, our voyeurship as an audience. Theatre that makes us feel alive. Theatre that makes us aware that we are drowned in necessity and our society, in its grubbing for money, obfusticates what it means to be a human being in a social philosophy that penalises human feelings. Theatre must be transgressive. This is what theatre should do. Make us feel.
The Onion Bar does all of this!
If you missed The Onion Bar in Valentine's Mansion, it is still touring and you have a chance to get a genuine experience. Lobby your local theatre, or council, to get this production somewhere close to you, so that you can see it too.
"The Onion Bar" will be in Tunbridge Wells on 7, 8, 9 October.
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher