DARK AND FASCINATING
BY ALEXANDER DEFERT
A VISCERAL ORCHESTRA OF SHREDDED NERVES AND TABOO TOPICS.
Now, I don't want to appear like an ingrate but, truthfully, reviewing a play can sometimes be quite a stressful experience. Not because they are boring or incomprehensible (plays like that are often actually the easiest to review, and allow one to air out one's gleefully vindictive demons) but because they are such of mixture of good and bad that it's hard to provide a definitive statement on their worthiness.
Such is the case with Bullet Theatre's performance of 'Freak'. This is a play which is both dark and fascinating, leading its audience down into the murky depths of society's perverse sexual dysfunctions. The trend towards normalising the self-objectification of women's sexuality, and the pressure placed on them to conform to this self degrading and dehumanising experience of oneself, is extremely harrowing to behold. And yet, behold it we must if we are ever to correct it. So, in making a performance exploring the topic that is so squirm inducingly intense and engaging, so unashamedly and brutally honest in its dissection of the issue, Bullet Theatre is to be deservedly applauded.
First off, and most importantly, the need for plays like this in modern society cannot be overstated. The subjects most in need of addressing are often the hardest and most visceral to discuss and few, if any, theatre makers seem genuinely willing to engage in these socially shaming and emotionally difficult topics; an embarrassment which painfully reveals how reluctant society is to actually confront its demons, rather than gloss over them with the superficial and self-serving appearance of giving a damn.
That being said, this was a production whose elements, taken individually, seemed capable only of being either wondrously good or bafflingly poor. For each breathtaking high, there seemed to be some inexplicably ill-thought out decision designed to stop it from reaching maximum potency. The combined effect was to create a play which resembled nothing so much as an orchestra of shredded nerves and taboo topics, with each beautiful and carefully planned concerto upended by a comically lackadaisical and out of time violinist.
First, the wondrous. Thomasin Lawson and Ruth Wormington both dazzled in their lead roles of Georgie and her niece Leah. Lawson's display of heartrending emptiness and self-loathing was utterly heartbreaking to behold, as was Wormington's turn as a young girl struggling with her attempts to become assured in her own sexuality (and her subsequent position in the overbearing social hierarchy that it threatens to confer). Both actresses gave powerful performances, and credit must be given to Katherine Latimer as the director in allowing the astounding duo to showcase the full length and breadth of their talents. From horrendously difficult to watch chasms of human misery to stabbing moments of bittersweet dark humour and beyond, both Lawson and Wormington managed to elevate a difficult and wrenching script to its absolute fullest potential. What a shame, therefore, that the same care of thought wasn't given to the accompanying ensemble.
Whilst largely a boon rather than a hindrance, they occasionally stumbled too far into the realms of pure distraction (with the choreography at times noticeably ill-tuned to the space in which they were performing). A well crafted piece of physical theatre can do wonders when it comes to heightening the emotions of a piece, particularly when highlighting the disturbing nature of total self-objectification, and the ensemble were, to be fair, both extremely dedicated and obviously talented in performing what is often an extremely thankless task. That being said, it doesn't matter how skillfully one performs if one is regularly placed in a part of the stage which blocks the audience from seeing the main characters.
Additionally, the amount of time given over to the ensemble's presence onstage was, somewhat ironically, gratuitously long. This is not a criticism of the performers (who, as previously noted, did their jobs admirably), but of editing. Essentially, a more ruthless approach was needed to strip back extraneous bodies on stage during key scenes.
What makes this decision so odd is that when it came to managing the edit of Anna Jordan's script, the director's decisions were generally spot on. The overuse of the word 'spastic', which pervades much of Anna Jordan's otherwise incredibly effective writing, was, thankfully, largely cut, as was a problematic racial reference in an early scene. These cuts kept the spirit of the piece intact and even prevented what would otherwise have been a series of quite jarring distractions from detracting from the plays extraordinarily salient message.
The music and lighting was similarly effective, making the most of a limited budget and restrictive underground theatre space to give the production a frenetic and impactful atmosphere. But, as ever, the good work of the technical aspects were forced to jostle for attention with some awkward set design missteps. The stage design seemed needlessly shoddy and messy in its execution and would almost certainly have benefited from a more stripped back appearance. Instead the lack of understanding of where the audience's sight lines were meant that the central to the plot bed was placed in a position where half the audience were unable to see it at any one time.
Ultimately, 'Freak' balances itself out well enough that it's mistakes don't shoot it in the foot. As a whole, this is a play well worth watching for a number of reasons, and one which I hope that Bullet Theatre pursues in a more refined form somewhere down the line. If nothing else, it's a topic that deserves to be treated with as much respect by its creators as it demands of its audience.