Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Skin in Flames

Guillem Clua
StoneCrabs Theatre and Bots & Barrals
Park Theatre (90)

Almiro Andrade as Salomon and Bea Segura as Hanna Credit: Andrew H Williams
David Lee-Jones as Dr Brown and Laya Marti as Ida Credit: Andrew H Williams
David Lee-Jones as Dr Brown and Almiro Andrade as Salomon Credit: Andrew H Williams
Laya Marti as Ida Credit: Andrew H Williams

A joint production of Catalan company Bots & Barrals and UK’s StoneCrabs, played in English by a cast from both countries, Clua’s play packs a great deal into just eighty minutes. He does so partly by running concurrently what at first seem two independent stories that at times seem to share the same dialogue and do eventually become linked.

One story centres on photographer Frederick Salomon whose reputation rests on a picture he took twenty years earlier, a picture of a little girl being blown up by a bomb that became iconic, like that famous picture of a naked Vietnamese girl in flames as she ran towards the camera.

Now he has been invited back to the (unnamed) country where it was taken, still recovering from decades of conflict and trying to regain a place in the international community. He is the winner of an Arts Prize, newly instituted by the UN-supported regime now in power to normalise their status.

Journalist Hanna comes up to his room to conduct an interview but she has other purposes. It is no spoiler (for it is very soon signalled) to tell you she may be the girl in the photograph.

The parallel story presents Dr Brown, part of some UN mission and local mother Ida. Her daughter lies in a coma; he promises treatment but in return demands sexual favours.

Clua’s main theme is the exploitation of victims, the needy, the artist. Himself a journalist, he raises the question of why getting a picture is professionally more important than helping the victim—though in this case Salomon was knocked out by the blast too, sustaining injuries that still leave him limping. He is also symbolically suggesting that foreign aid comes with strings that are essentially exploitive.

There is really no proper argument, political or moral. Without context or any investigation of character, this is all very simplistic. Clua seems more interested in dramatic structure and putting twists in his story than offering real content. Should we take Dr Brown’s kinky practices at face value or are they symbolic of worse Western practices? Why, as Hanna accuses, does Salomon no longer take photographs but employ others to do it for him? Why does he always wear gloves?

Are the two story strands synchronous but in different places or at different times all in the same room? By the end of the play that’s determined but Clua seems to be playing games with the audience to no real purpose. His characters are ciphers, relying on the actors to give them real substance. This cast do their best to make you believe in them.

The women are played by two Spanish actresses, clearly differentiating locals from foreigners. Laya Martí is Ida, adding something of a mother’s anguish to her symbolic victimhood. Bea Segura plays gun-toting Hanna suggesting an ill-preparedness to explain her oddities. David Lee-Jones gives a front of smooth charm to the perverted doctor and Almiro Andrade provides a strong presence as Salomon, and a physicality that counters the lack of firm information.

Silvia Ayguadé and Franko Figueiredo’s production smoothly blends the two storylines and Valerie Kaneko-Lucas’s design provides a setting that signals international style mixed with ethnic patterns, an untidiness that reflects the national situation and a suggestion of corrugated iron made elegant to hint at conflict veneered over.

There is a conscious theatricality in dividing the attention between a foreground interrogation and sexual shenanigans in the background that adds to a perhaps intentional confusion demanding concentration but this play never gets beneath the surface. There are hints that these characters have real stories to tell but Clua doesn’t let us hear them.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton