Now into its eighth year, it’s impossible to miss the impact the HighTide Festival has quietly been making over the years. A showcase for new work, I’ve often noticed the HighTide Festival credit increasingly appearing on credits for shows coming into London. This year I decided was the year to actually pay a visit there. I’m so glad I did.
A festival essentially of premieres, new work and readings, talks and late night music, press were offered four plays in a day on Saturday April 12th.
There was much else besides but these are the four that we saw. All of them ran without interval.
First up was, for me, what turned out to be the highlight of the day in a venue called the Rifle Hall, the world premiere of Nick Payne’s latest, Incognito.
Payne’s Constellations won the 2012 Evening Standard Best Play award, his next play The Same deep Water as Me was an Olivier nominee for Best New Comedy. And this year he collaborated with Carrie Cracknell on the fizzing feminist inspired, kaleidoscopic, Blurred Lines at the NT’s Shed.
He has form, then and Incognito, a Nabokov and Live Theatre Newcastle co-production with Oxford’s The North Wall, follows on from where Constellations left off – short, sharp scenes that appear initially unconnected, held together by rippling concentric, ever entwining themes around identity, memory, the brain, obsession and in rather a coquettish sense, Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Einstein’s brain forms the central pivot of the play. It is around the insistent study of this brain, after death, by American pathologist, Thomas Harvey that other figures circulate, interconnect and spin off.
Joe Murphy’s spare, abrupt, sequential production within a bare scaffolding acting area, produces, as with Constellations, some extraordinary performances, the quartet of actors – Paul Hickey, Amelia Lowdel, Alison O’Donnell and Sargon Yelda – required to slip in and out of sometimes up to six characters, sometimes in mid-sentence. It is a prodigious acting feat in a piece that can leave the spectator breathless or lost as to who is connected to who, and where exactly they are placed on this continuum of inter-relationships.
Hickey, for example plays Prof Harvey, as well as five other characters. Lowdel is a divorced, steadily disillusioning neuropsychologist, Martha, embarking on a new lesbian relationship with O’Donnell’s Scottish unemployed solicitor as well as playing Harvey’s wife, Eloise and Evelyn, Einstein’s daughter. Yelda meanwhile is Henry, a pianist whose short-term memory loss has locked him into a repetitive cycle of forgetting and who is forever embracing O’Donnell’s Margaret, his wife, as if for the first time, over and over again.
Eventually, Harvey’s pre-occupation with Einstein’s brain, Evelyn, Martha and Henry’s connection become clear. Along the way, we learn much and laugh a little in the way of humans trying to grapple with human relationships, trying to fathom who we are and what we are doing on this planet. Like Michael Frayn’s great Copenhagen, it’s an exhilarating ride. But my, you’ve got to concentrate.
Incognito set an acting standard, that it has to be said, never faltered throughout the day. Next up, The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World at HighTide’s home base, The Cut, another world premiere also boasted its own staccato-like element in the form of Jamie Vartan’s design: a series of silver square boxes that whizzed around by the cast suggested a variety of atmospheres and situations. Clever use of limited space – and presumably budget – Elinor Cook’s drama spun around the feminist idea that every man is a potential rapist.
Jade Williams Jane is best friends to Georgina Strawson’s more militantly minded Bella. Best friends since school, The Girl’s Guide charts the pressure their friendship comes under both from ideology and their attachments and attractions to men. Postcards from the radical edge you might call it, Cook’s trajectory is as truthful as it is painful as Jane, torn by loyalty, uncertainty, lack of confidence and a live-in boyfriend tries to negotiate the whirlwind of emotions. In one devastating scene, she and Toby, her boyfriend seem to be heading for a sweet, real intimacy only for Toby to draw back into fantasy triggering a desperate lunge by Jane into provoking Toby into raping her.
Ben Lambert, playing Toby and other male roles is terrific conveying contrasting male attitudes. Director Amelia Sears’ production is fluid, clever and ingenious in a white-washed studio that is simply a blank space.
I worry, though, that two recent plays by our new women playwrights are offering visions of women – the other being Vicky Jones’ The One – apparently in thrall to the fantasy idea of being raped. What do women really, really want…etc etc. Maybe it’s bravery, maybe at long last it is an exposure of one of the last of the taboos that old style feminism sought to reject. Makes for explosive, troubling viewing all the same.
A short break brought us almost immediately to another venue, the gallery. A monologue and first play by actor, Harry Melling, Peddling also demanded concentrated viewing. An hour long, and written in verse, Melling’s protagonist is a young offender on a work scheme, peddling home basics – loo paper, jay-cloths, door-to-door, the kind of person you would probably hardly give a second thought to and probably turn away from your door.
After Peddling, you may think twice. Melling through a mixture of verse-prose draws us into the world of his young man, on the brink of emotional and psychological melt-down, trekking through the streets of north London, surveying the concrete jungle, hiding in car parks and underpasses until an attempt at suicide brings him a moment of revelation.
At times abstract, at times deeply metaphorical, Melling’s performance matches the intensity of his language. Hanging in his y-fronts from a telegraph pole within a boxed gauze, the hardship and the pain become physical realities to us as to him.
It’s a remarkable, dangerous performance and, starting initially angry and inexplicable – `the world is yawning…a long list of yesterdays as the concrete begins to set’…ends with trembling tenderness. This is a young man endeavouring to discover who he is and finding it on a social services form, the address of his biological mother. A heart-rending denouement, it’s in the grand tradition of social conscience plays of the voiceless from Gorki to Cardboard Players and on.
And so finally, to the day’s piece de resistance, Dan LeFranc’s The Big Meal, less a world premiere than a transfer from the Theatre Royal Bath having been first produced at American Theater Chicago in 2011 and then by Playwrights Horizons off-Broadway in 2012.
The Big Meal British production boasted an impressive line-up. Former RSC artistic director Michael Boyd at the helm, with a team largely picked from his time there: designer Tom Piper, actors Keith Bartlett, Jo Stone-Fewings, Kirsty Bushell augmented by the perennial, ever-blooming Diana Quick.
A large, sprawling, noisy play of succeeding generations and overlapping conversations, it’s one of the few in recent years to really gave credence to family life that incorporates children and makes them very present!
Ageing though is the play’s core – ageing, falling in love and dying – a fact brilliantly illustrated in Boyd’s production by meals served sporting bright red – a pasta dish, a salad, a soup all vividly slashed scarlet – immensely effective, especially watching a youngster piling into a plate of food and knowing that signals his demise whilst the family silently crumble around him.
All the action takes place in a restaurant, around family meals triggered by the first meeting in the restaurant of young Nicole, a waitress and Sam, a customer. As they form a bond and have children, so the family expands. One pairing leads to another with brothers and sisters who marry and create more children. As inevitably, they die, so the family shrinks until finally the old woman who sits before us at the restaurant table in the shape of Quick, is the older self of Nicky who first met Sam in the restaurant. Sam, in his ageing process has developed dementia – a silent staring-eyed Keith Bartlett who in an earlier incarnation has been the life and garrulous soul of the family get-togethers.
Thus, as Shakespeare would say, we age and age.
I couldn’t be sure from time to time whether LeFranc’s approach was a purely tragic one – his dialogue fizzes with humorous asides and responses but accelerates into a crescendo of sound that is sometimes hard to follow. In the American way of things, The Big Meal expresses a mighty sea of emotion and psycho-drama and perhaps in Boyd’s direction – or was it in LeFranc’s script – you might detect and ponder whether this wasn’t a gigantic satire on the American way of life and family?
But such was the quality of the performances that eventually, poignancy was the final impact.
As with Nick Payne’s Incognito, too, the doubling and trebling up of roles, of playing young, then old, set a huge acting challenge, magnificently overcome by all concerned led by a fiery Kirsty Bushell and Jo Stone Fewings as the middle-aged Nicole and Sam along with comparative `newcomers’ Lindsey Campbell and James Corrigan. And, of course, the kids – Jeremy Becker and Zoe Dolly Castle.
At the end of the day, quite apart from the quality of the writing, such an exposure reaffirms, as if we need it, the fantastic depth of acting this country possesses.
What a treasure we have. What amazing work.