Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Cleansing of Constance Brown - A E Harris Building, Birmingham

 Creators: Gerard Bell, Jake Oldershaw, Graeme Rose, Bernadette Russell, Craig Stephens, Andy Watson
Music: Nina West with Richard Chew
Director: James Yorker
Reviewer: Tabitha McGrath

Boundaries were broken and this evening’s performance by the Birmingham-based Theatre Group Stan’s Cafe. The Cleansing of Constance Brown is something that you will never have experienced before, even from the most avant-garde, contemporary theatre group.

Set in a 14m long corridor, with a series of doors on either side, the seven cast members flit between characters, time periods and stories. It is worth mentioning from the outset that there was no dialogue in the one-act play, only an intrusive and ear-splitting soundtrack. The audience sit at one end of the long corridor and it as if we are just observing. Nothing was presented to us, and in a sense there wasn’t really a typical plot. We were merely shown a series of different mini stories. Some were shown only once, such as a dramatic telling of the horrific treatment of prisoners of war in Afghanistan. Some were shown and then referred back to numerously, a story of a high-flying business going into turmoil that saw hundreds of sheets of paper hurriedly shredded and an eventual suicide. Most of the time, they were left un-ended. And they were always busy, shifting from one to another, often crossing paths and this unfortunately was not always clear.

Upon leaving the interesting metal works building in the Jewelry Quarter in Birmingham, we were directed through the set, and I thought that this might have answered a few of my questions as we walked up the ominous, dark corridor, alas this was not the case.

Since the dialogue and essentially, a clear plot, is removed, the productions relies heavily on all of the other aspects of performance. In other words, it is vital that the rest of the production is enhanced to make up for this. Kay Wilson’s bespoke costumes were well-designed, instantly dragging us from modern day Iraq to Elizabethan England using the typical dress of both eras, yet keeping them extremely simple when there were simultaneous sub-plots. This was the highlight of the play, along with the superb silent acting from the cast. In this situation, one realises that half of language does not come from words, but from gestures, actions and facial expressions.

This also means that the only sound in the play came from the music, which was blasted at the audience through large seemingly invisible speakers. The music was just as contemporary as the concept of the play, and in some cases very clever, mixing several loop tracks together to create a tension-filled wonderful mess. However, it seemed as though the peak of the music happened far too early and the only way to build intensity for the latter half of the production was to increase the volume. This became quite uncomfortable in places and left the lady next to me with fingers in her ears. I would have also preferred a higher quality sound producer, since some of it sounded particularly false and poor quality.

Especially due to the lack of obviousness in the play, it requires a lot of work from the audience. Are they always re-enacting famous moments in history? Do they expect you to know every story that they re-enact? Are they testing one’s prejudices? Or do they just expect you to take the piece as face value? I don’t know and this forces me to question whether this is ground-breaking or a little bit too try-hard? However, it certainly makes for an interesting and entertaining evening, especially if you like to have your mind stretched.

Runs until 19th March
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