The Other Room
The Other Room Theatre, Cardiff
The Story is the second in the autumn season of new plays at The Other Room, advertised under the heading: The Violence Series. Like the first, Matthew Bulgo’s American Nightmare, it looks at contemporary global politics through a dystopian lens and aims to discomfit and disturb. It is informed by author Tess Berry-Hart's experience of working with organisations which assist migrants and asylum-seekers.
We, the audience, find ourselves seated around Delyth Evans’s relatively bare set; a raised platform is in the centre, with a woman apparently waiting at a table towards one end. A video is projected onto the walls—Luciana Trapman's Storyteller combining theory with testimony.
As the action proper begins, it transpires that the waiting woman—X, played by Siwan Morris—is in detention, having just returned to her home country following a period spent helping out in a nearby war zone. A cheery official, Hannah McPake's V, subjects her to routine questioning.
It becomes clear, very quickly, however, that X's path back to family life with her wife and two stepchildren will not be a smooth one. There is the fact that while she refers to the zone in which she has been volunteering as "occupied", V sees it as "annexed". And what is the precise nature of the assistance she has been delivering? Does she have any connection with the armed protestors who infest the area? And why does V know so much about her life?
Inevitably, X's period of confinement extends far beyond a few hours, while she interacts with a number of functionaries, some hostile, others ostensibly helpful (a lawyer, a human rights observer)—but all of them with the same face. What starts out as a Kafkaeque nightmare quickly develops into an Orwellian one.
Morris is compelling throughout as the increasingly desperate X, her fear and uncertainty palpable. McPake makes the most of the opportunity to showcase her versatility, as the many iterations of V; a character who symbolises both the deviousness of the oppressor and the possibility that even the virtuous may be guilty of seeing their enemies as dehumanised, faceless "others".
As much as The Story blatantly reflects current headlines, with its context of refugee camps and frequent references to the ill-defined "will of the people", it is also about the ways in which particular narratives take hold within a society, such that contrary viewpoints are seen as treacherous. Furthermore, in a twist which will surprise no-one with a rudimentary knowledge of history, it also addresses the ease with which one truth can mutate into another.
Berry-Hart's writing is incisive and clever, V's officiousness provoking much nervous tittering, until the point at which it ceases to be amusing. Director David Mercatalli ensures that the mood remains tense throughout, supported by Tic Ashfield's glitchy score and Katy Morison's sinister lighting effects; and Simon Clode’s video projections of desolate landscapes remind us that the universe in which the play exists is a real one.
The Storyteller's ruminations, though undeniably well-crafted and slickly executed, occasionally stray into abstraction, threatening to distract from the human drama which is unfolding on-stage. Even more nit-pickingly, the occasional use of British surnames and locations tend to detract from the universality of the tale.
The poignancy and relevance of The Story, however, is undeniable, with the intimacy of the setting and the power of the performances making for a perspiration-inducing eighty or so minutes.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith