Thursday, 9 October 2014

Escape Goat Utopia - Hayman Theatre Company (8 October 2014)

Nathan drops his last box of possessions as tears overcome him and he slowly slides down the wall, stage right until finally he curls up in the foetal position. An audience member, Nathan’s mother, can’t stand the pain of her son sobbing any longer and rushes onstage from her front row seat to comfort him. As her arms enfold him he looks up in anguish. ‘Mum, bugger off, you’re embarrassing me!” The Reviewer, also in the front row, thinks this suggestion is a wonderful idea as he talks to Nathan and his mother after the show and insists it must somehow be included… and so this paragraph came to pass…

None of this happened in the actual play, of course, but if it had the intrusion would have fit in perfectly to the absurdist, self-aware, meta-construct that was on display. A self-devised piece with the assistance of Jeffrey Jay Fowler, it is partly a commentary on the process of creating theatre; an existential rumination on the age old questions of who am I and what is my purpose; and for me, largely a showcase for the diverse talents of the cast. Then there are the goats.

Amusingly, in the best set piece – a lovely film noir parody replete with purple prose narration and femme fatale splendour that spins off into an all too clever discourse on theatre acting – a trap is set for the casual fan or critic. Beth (Tremlett) decries the person who tells her after a show that she was great, looked fabulous, and was clearly having fun as a shorthand way to avoid saying she is a bad actor. There is another layer of self-awareness here as the two-hander with Nathan (Whitebrook) clearly knows how good they both are as actors. While Beth was, as I’ve come to expect, excellent; did indeed look fabulous; and was having a good time with that particular iteration of her character, I dare not type that lest I… damn!

Embracing that conceit though, I can’t genuinely say I understood what the play was about or ultimately what it was trying to tell me. The theatre in-jokes were funny and well played but the existential crisis/debate was less interesting to me as it never really took a position. Throughout there is the recurring line, “this isn’t who you really are”; a notion that a Deep Thought like computer could conceive a moral code that could lead to world peace; and, in the long ensemble set piece at the end, further exploration about what would make the characters happy. The solution, in fitting with the tone of the piece, was absurdist and too obtuse for mine. Then there are those damn goats that were symbolically gnawing at the fabric of the universe. We’ll come back to them later, one in particular.

The structure is largely comprised of two-handers and initially felt like a series of skits after the first iteration of the more serious breakup scene between Nathan and Beth (yes, the characters use their actor’s first name). There was the death scene where one soldier (Monty Sallur) only wants to be told he is loved and beautiful by his reticent comrade (Jack Middleton) which was amusing, for some reason reminded me of Hair, but tended to be overlong as a sketch; two old schoolmates (Rhiannon Petersen and Rebecca Maynard) who have taken completely different paths in life have an awkward chance meeting at a supermarket; and an enthusiastic boss (played with gusto by Ariel Tresham) shows a new employee (Savannah Wood) the factory that makes toy goats. These pairings are revisited in seemingly alternative universes and it all folds in on itself and becomes self-referential until the end scene where all the actors assemble and intone in unison existential angst.

I loved the energy on display and there are genuinely funny parts such as when Jack storms off stage shouting ‘amateurs’ as the next iteration of the dying soldier scene is interrupted then debated by the ‘director’ (Ariel) and actors. My immediate response after the play finished was to say I was “processing” what I’d just seen… and that is a good thing though perhaps an ever elusive exercise. 

The set was simple with a silver curtain along the rear of the stage with turf covering the stage floor and side walls. There was good use of lighting and sound effects throughout to immerse us in this fantastical world. The acting styles also varied depending on the demands of any individual scene and there were moments of genuine drama between the absurdity and comedy. But what did it all mean…?  

Directed and written by Jeffrey Jay Fowler (based on a devising process), Escape Goat Utopia stars Ariel Tresham, Beth Tremlett, Rebecca Maynard, Jack Middleton, Monty Sallur, Nathan Whitebrook, Rhiannon Petersen and Savannah Wood and is on at the Hayman Theatre Upstairs until 11 October.  

Part 2

The Reviewer drops his programme as tears of frustration overcome him and he slowly slumps into his seat in the front row until finally he curls up in a semi-foetal position. A surprise cast member, Roxie Hart, can’t stand the pain of this critic sobbing any longer and rushes across stage from behind the silver curtain to comfort him. As her arms enfold him he looks up in anguish. “Roxie, bugger off, I’m processing here!” The actors, gathered on stage, think this notion is a wonderful development as they chat to The Reviewer after the show and insist it must somehow be included… and so this paragraph came to pass…

Okay, there appear to be clues throughout the play and here’s a theory *deep breath*…

The play is anchored by the breakdown in the relationship between Nathan and a pregnant Beth. It seems Nathan’s wayward tendencies – unfaithfulness, drugs and his pet goat – have caused an irrevocable split even though he pleads his case. The line, “this is not who you really are” that Nathan throws at Beth echoes throughout this and other scenes except for one notable exception when Beth later tells him this IS who you really are. Savannah also plays a pregnant character and ‘steals’ Beth’s showpiece monologue (which is beautifully delivered) - a surrogate version in his imagination?

Characters emerge from behind a shimmering silver curtain as if being summoned and disappear back into that glittery void. I would have to see it again but I don't recall Nathan breaking that 'barrier'. The philosophical discussions about moral codes and world peace possibly disguise his need for emotional stability. The play ends with a traumatised Nathan who has been moving out throughout the story collapsing into tears. 

I have a sneaking suspicion that the two-handers are wonderful perversions of his emotional trauma – the ‘dying’ character who needs to be told he is loved; a weird reinterpretation of how he met Beth (the “cute-meet”) now seen as two completely different (incompatible) people in the supermarket; his enthusiasm for the pet goat and Beth’s dismay morphed into the factory scene (where Nathan lurks in the background transfixed by a toy goat).

Then there is the fantastical film noir scene that comes immediately after the first set of pairings and puts the focus firmly back on Nathan and Beth. The ensemble sequence with all the characters speaking in unison would appear to be a giant echo chamber of his doubts and fears. Is Nathan like Roxie Hart in the movie version of Chicago taking real events - the breakup and its aftermath - and projecting them into fantasy? An escape indeed. 

Of course, there’s always the possibility that I am the goat…

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