November 11, 2007

Water @ Warwick Arts Centre

The world is very quickly waking up to experimental theatre company Filter. Almost exactly a year ago I caught their Twelfth Night playing to tiny audiences at the RSC’s temporary studio space, the Cube. Not long after they appeared with the National Theatre, packing out major venues such as the Cottesloe and Warwick Arts Centre with the excellent The Caucasian Chalk Circle. In 2008 they return to Stratford, this time in the considerably huger Courtyard Theatre. But right now it’s their own devised piece, Water, that is doing the rounds. Dismal ticket sales at Warwick Arts Centre had considerably lowered expectations among the campus community, and I’ve been doing my best for a couple of weeks to persuade people that the show would almost certainly be worth seeing. I’m pleased to say that they didn’t disappoint.

The play tackled climate change and human inability to interact, and the multi-faceted plot repeatedly returned to both these themes. One storyline followed Graham, a depressed East Anglia environmental officer whose father, Peter, was a prominent scientist vocal in the early days of recognising climate change and abandoned Graham for a university job in California thirty years earlier. On hearing of his father’s death, Graham flies to California where he meets his half-brother, a radio DJ, and discovers that his father lived a high-flying successful life, which he struggles to come to terms with. In flashbacks, it is revealed that Peter was pressurised by the university’s business funders to depoliticise his research, effectively selling out so he could stay in America with the woman he had fallen in love with.

The other strand of the story follows Claire, a government aide on the brink of convincing America to adopt new tough policies ahead of the G8 as a step towards solving climate change. Whitehall, via the shadowy voice of Bill, put pressure on her to throw the fight as they cannot commit to policies, and although Claire refuses she finds she is ultimately unable to effect change anyway in the face of financial and political fear on the part of the decision makers. Meanwhile, she is in the process of messily breaking up with her boyfriend who is a cave-diver preparing for a world-record attempt in Mexico. Beaten to the record by a rival and abandoned by Claire, he throws himself into his dive and never returns from the depths- just as Claire discovers she is pregnant and tries to get back in touch with him.

The plot, taken at face value, did not shy away from cliche, particularly in the case of Claire’s pregnancy which added little apart from motivating her final desperate attempt to contact her ex on the day of his death. However, the nature of this devised piece allowed the plot to function almost as a series of motifs and ideals that continually wound together the themes of isolation and the repeated failures of people to connect with comment on how these failures are being played out on a global scale in the case of climate change and environmental policy. Key to this was the relationship between Claire and her ex. In an opening lecture, Peter explained that individual human achievement is what is destroying the planet, when what is needed is group harmony and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Claire represented the former in her personal life, placing success and her independence over the man she loved, who repeatedly asked her to work with and talk to him to save their relationship. But their professional lives were the reverse, with the diver’s determination for personal glory the thing that ultimately destroyed him (crushed by water), while Claire’s pleas for countries to work together saw her ostracised from her party. Her final moments, as Whitehall offered her a job in the new government in recognition of her failure to achieve anything, were particularly affecting.

In many ways, though, the story acted as a vehicle for the cleverness of Filter (though never, in my opinion, becoming self-indulgent). With musician and stage manager both in plain sight, Filter’s style is to create everything in full view of the audience, with no tricks. This led to such wonderful moments as the diver’s description of the effects of diving, with each character creating sound samples which were looped live into a cacophony of noise, audibly creating the heart-pounding experience of diving into an abyss in an arresting moment of stage activity. Actors crossed paths on stage, handing props to each other. Noises such as drips were created by performers popping their cheeks into microphones; live webcam conversations were delivered by actors in full view; hotel receptionists and telephone calls were performed in full by performers who had just left the room. The whole thing was delivered incredibly slickly, turning stage management into a carefully choreographed activity that meant the constantly shifting story remained fluid and visually fascinating.

The three actors (Oliver Dimsdale, Ferdy Roberts and Victoria Moseley) were all very good, playing multiple roles to great effect. Dimsdale was at his best as the English cave-diver, sympathetic in his confusion at Claire’s attitude towards him and almost repellent in his egocentric quest for fame and glory. His dives were some of the most dramatic sections of the play, fading ultimately into blackness while the spoken depth counter continued counting deeper and deeper. Ferdy Roberts was also excellent, particularly as the depressed Graham. I found his first appearance deeply moving, looking through lonely hearts dating sites before calling his mum and then the Chinese takeaway (who knew his order off by heart) to arrange the same Friday night in he had clearly had for several years. His arrival in America to discover the exotic celebrity life of his father was all the more moving as he tried to make sense of an exciting life that he had been excluded completely from. Moseley was solid too, though more interesting in the political scenes than in those where she came to terms with her pregnancy, which felt a little too contrived.

Interestingly, talking later with my girlfriend, she (and many female reviewers) felt far less emotional impact from the play than I (along with some male reviewers) did, and I wonder if perhaps the successful-woman-facing-abortion story was perhaps too familiar and not developed enough to engage. Graham’s form of depression, on the other hand, showed a middle-aged man who had known nothing but isolation and abandonment, and still clung to his mum and his home for comfort, and Roberts’ believable performance in this role perhaps explains the emotional undercurrent felt by male reviewers. Certainly it was his story that most engaged me, which felt most ‘real’ among the style.

The play seemed to me to be a demonstration of Peter’s initial lecture, that individuals are powerless to achieve anything of permanent good, that change can only be effected when humans communicate properly and work together for the greater good, be that in a relationship or in global politics. It’s an easy message, and a familiar one, but the panache of Filter made it fresh and exciting. The closing image, turning the stage into an enormous aquarium, was also one of the prettiest things I’ve seen at Warwick Arts Centre in a long time! I thoroughly enjoyed this, and hope Filter continue going from strength to strength.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. good article. speaking as a woman though i beg to differ, it’s the first play in a long time that drew tears.

    11 Nov 2007, 15:23

  2. Hi Claire,

    That’s really interesting to hear, and I agree- it didn’t have me literally crying, but I certainly found myself more emotionally involved than others. If you don’t mind me asking, what was it as a woman that got you?


    11 Nov 2007, 18:14

  3. it’s hard to pinpoint exactly, i tried to write what i thought on le blog, but i suppose what got me is the breakdown of communication between the two, the inevitability of his death, and empathy with how she must be feeling. the abortion figures, but it’s just a part of it. i can’t pretend i trainspotted and focused solely on it….

    13 Nov 2007, 00:05

  4. Aaron

    Im a student at A leval and this peice really made me think about how to use my vocal abilty to the full. I could really see wht these guys were into with their lighting and realistic take, I was amazed by the character Graham’s performance, just his simple ideas like his voice and center’s work really well well done !!!!!!!!!!

    29 Nov 2007, 18:07

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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