Vault Festival – Crescent (London) 9.30pm – £13.50 Feb 23rd-March 1st, Marlborough Theatre (Brighton) £8.50 / £6.50 4th-5th March
“The Crescent” auditorium at The Vault is the perfect venue for Douglas Rintoul’s Elegy. Built in the tunnels beneath Waterloo Station, the rumble of trains overhead combines perfectly with Helen Atkinson’s sound design to create an oppressive, volatile atmosphere. Nothing about this play is comfortable, nor should it be. The sound, the lighting and most significantly the subject matter are jarring, confronting.
The essence of Elegy is its simplicity, a bare minimum of set with one actor telling a story. A story that is at once individual and collective, one character’s journey told in the third person. This gives a personal perspective on something that could have been experienced by any number of people. This use of the third person is never awkward and would be completely unremarkable were it not for the slight feeling that it is, at least in part, to avoid accusations of yet another white actor playing a non-white part. I can’t deny that I would probably have found an Iraqi – or Middle Eastern at least – actor, more appropriate. This would have felt more connected somehow, not to mention that the theatre in general tends to be a bit too white most of the time, though with effort that’s improving!
None of this should reflect on Adam Best’s performance however. It is no mean feat carrying a performance like this all on your own, especially treading a line between narrator and character. There is certainly a deep connection to the story and Best experiences and communicates it honestly. Occasionally he gets a little too lost in his own experience, he has a habit of closing his eyes or looking away which, when overused, can serve to shut the audience out and alienate them from the experience of the story. When he does connect with the audience however, the effect is palpable and deeply moving.
Perhaps the occasional disconnect between actor and audience is no bad thing, adding as it does to the discomfort of the play. As I said before, we should be uncomfortable, that’s what exposing human rights abuses should do, make us uncomfortable, angry and desperate for change. This play is not about emotive polemics. It is about real life which is messy and never black and white. The programme states “Since the so-called liberation of Iraq, it is now more difficult to be gay… than it was under Saddam Hussein”. This is not to say that the previous culture was one of openness and acceptance, the implication is of a roughly “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of arrangement. The climate created by the invasion gave extremists the perfect opportunity to impose a much more repressive environment. It is hard for Western societies to accept they may have made things worse especially when it comes to issues of equality but until we recognise our hand in creating the situation we won’t take responsibility for the fallout. And we must.
At the end of the day it isn’t about West or East, liberal or conservative, religious or secular or even gay or straight. It is simply about humanity. That is what I took from Elegy. It was a human story about human experiences and speaks to that part of each of us. The part that wants to feel safe, included, wanted. Essentially, to feel that we belong.
© Alexandra Birchfield
Alexandra is a New Zealand born writer and actor who has been living in the UK for 4 years. She spent the first three years in Glasgow studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is now living in London with two lovely flatmates and one very pampered cat.