To the Mountain
Three plays by Trevor Griffiths
Little London Theatre Company
Theatre Museum, Covent Garden
Good to see Trevor Griffith's work back on the London stage. Here we have three short pieces. Two were first performed together in 1971 (Thermidor and Apricots), the third, Camel Station, is getting its first full production (it had a rehearsed reading in New York in 2001).
Griffith's, whose work spans theatre, television and film, is always worthy of serious attention: he is a writer armed with passion, intellect, learning and wit. It shows in the texts. And thank god for that, since Thermidor, the first of these three pieces, is presented as little more than (scarcely) animated text. Luckily the text works. But why such a hallow, static production? I saw the preview. Maybe things will improve.
Thermidor is set in the time of the Stalinist purges. It brings us face to face with the everyday horror of bureaucratic power. Anya Pakhanova (played with some feeling by Imogen Smith) is interviewed by Gennado Yukhov (Alexander McConnell). She learns that her previous social and work life - a drink here, a party there, a meeting somewhere else - leaves her condemned before trial of betraying the revolution.
So static and wooden is the production that we are left interested but not moved. Only at the end, when Anya asks what will happened to her children does the emotion kick in. The answer is, of course, a bureaucratic one - children are another department.
Play two, Apricots, takes up the theme of power and disempowerment. Here we find two people equally disempowered by the despair of a disintegrating relationship. It's nineteen seventy and libertarianism is revealing the sticky realities of social entrapment. Andrea Sadler, as Anna, and Daniel James, as her partner Sam, bring physical and emotional mobility to this brutally frank presentation of a step-change in the accelerating decline of a once loving relationship. And yet.
Interestingly director Tamara Hinchco played Anya and Anna in the first production of these two plays. Perhaps this early entanglement explains a curious feeling that these productions have not had life blown into them. Rather, the texts have been fitted to the actors like wardrobe.
If Hinchko's earlier experience with Thermidor and Apricots somehow encouraged her to allow the texts recite themselves, she has reacted to Camel Station with a refreshed ability to let the actors find the text and its implications within themselves. No mean feat with such young actors.
Camel Station zings with life. We are on a mountainside in Iraq, 'between' the wars, if there was a 'between'. It's a 'no-fly' zone, over flown by American and British fighters and observation drones.
The play features two young people. Tarik (brilliantly played by Fenar Mohammed-Ali), a boy who guards his family flocks from wolves. As he does so he prepares a performance which might earn him a place at a school of Arabic story-telling. And Suriya (a lovely performance from Lisa Came), a few years his senior. Suriya is a medical student, she brings Tarik food during a visit home.
Neither favours Saddam. Tarik's story is a joke at the leader's expense. Both have lives to lead. Inevitably there is an attack and the 'allies' plant them like dragon's teeth.
In an intensely moving terminal speech, Tarik, trembling with shock, presents the most powerful, compact coming of age moment you are likely to find anywhere in art or life. Fenar Mohammed-Ali is astounding, his performance heartbreaking and magnificent.
Perhaps more importantly for the piece as a whole, he and Lisa Came ripple with unspoken back-story that informs their articulation of Griffith's sparse but beautiful words.
So, three plays about entrapment and power and a gap of thirty years between the first two and the third. Griffith's pulsing anger is felt in all three, but the articulated rawness and despair of the first two is replaced in Camel Station by enthusiasm, lightness of being and then abused innocence. It's a simple tale told in simple, brief statements which allow Tarik and Suriya's depths, truths and human complexity to flower in the audience. Craft like this is a scarce commodity. A very fine evening in the theatre which demonstrates how good theatre can be.
Running until 23rd April
Reviewer: Ray Brown