Promenade theatre is a form of drama seldom seen on the student stage. For the uninitiated, it’s a theatrical format that immerses the viewer by allowing them on set. With no seating and no formal distinction between story and viewer, audience and actors alike are left at each other’s mercy. The creative opportunities afforded by such a set up are incredibly interesting but also incredibly risky.
It’s exciting that a production at the O’Reilly should attempt to harness this ambitious format and furthermore a testament to the vision and bravery of the show’s director and producer. Especially in light of the creative and financial risk of putting it on. And yet although this was a great effort, I wish they had pushed the possibilities of the format further.
Breathing Corpses tells three sets of stories through five extended vignettes. The thread that flows throughout each of the stories is a debilitating encounter with death. The first story shows us a hotel cleaner called Amy who discovers a corpse at work. We then move to the office of a storage locker manager called Ryan (James Watson) who similarly discovers a dead body moments after a representatively awkward and strained conversation with his wife Elaine (Isobel Jesper Jones) and employee Ray (Calam Lynch). Finally, we see our last duo in the form of Ben (Dom Applewhite) and Kate (Helena Wilson) who have a dangerously unbalanced relationship, whereby Kate abuses Ben under the guise of stress and anger. These stories interlock until the fifth and final vignette in which Amy uncovers what we strongly suspect to be another dead body.â€¨
The story is a little ponderous due to the fact it strays between offering veiled social commentary on the niceties and pettiness of everyday life or whether it wants to be a murder mystery. The former style is evidenced when the dialogue directs us to the quotidian details of our character’s lives. This facet of the writing sometimes clashes with the finding of a corpse. The reconciliation of these thematic and stylistic disjunctions is I think the main challenge that the work presents for a production. It must be said, Laura Wade’s text makes little concession to a production trying to pull together these contradictions. When this production managed to combine both, what came through was an extremely intelligent and compelling piece. It further managed to capture something of the existential and comic absurdity that Wade’s contraposition of death and banality seemed to be aiming for. Sadly, however, these moments sometimes took a long time to shine through and sometimes they felt as if they were a long time coming. Ultimately however I think as viewers we were well rewarded for waiting.
A case in point of how Wade makes it tough to reconcile the opposites of mortality and banality is the first two vignettes. For my money these were are slow and not as interesting as the writer probably thinks they are. Grainne O’Mahony (Amy) has to work with a very unforgiving set of lines when she delivers a series of awkward non-sequiturs which we as audience members are made to find amusing and endearing in light of the surrealism of her situation. Personally the monologue did not come off for me, but frankly this is a fault of the script not the production or her performance. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due – to hold the audience’s attention for a good 10-15 minutes on your own with such a tough monologue is real credit to O’Mahony.
The next scene between Ray, Elaine and Ryan would have worked well as a scene in the middle of a play in which they were the only characters. They came on and delivered excellently all the nuances and subtleties of their frustrations and power plays. Isobel Jesper Jones in particular has refined ability to conjure a menacing presence of suggested anger or rage- to perfection. Likewise, James Watson and Calam Lynch had a fantastic rapport of easy nonchalance in contrast to Jones’s nervous energy. But again, one just didn’t feel invested without having had the narrative that their situation seemed to presuppose. As such what was a very accomplished execution of the scene lost the urgency and momentum, which the subtlety of their characterization needed in order to really be appreciated.
It was only after Dom Applewhite and Helena Wilson injected some sense of manic neurotic energy that things got more urgent. Their argument over a wounded dog was very scary and the absurdity of the subject matter didn’t get in the way of seriously suggesting the danger and significance of their fight. This was the scene where mortality and banality were best brought together. On the one hand we had the petty details over which the couple argue and on the other we had the degeneration of the bickering into a pretty mortal duel. The resulting juxtaposition, hooked us like a murder mystery and made us reflect on just how shit living in the rat run of everyday working life really is. A juxtaposition of this sort I think was part of the intention and the difficulty of the play.
Once we see the fight, the play really comes into its own as a gripping and fascinating character study. It is on the strength of what follows this fight that the play deserves four stars.
My one complaint is with how static the staging was for a promenade play. As audience members mostly we ended up standing in the middle and just turning our head to the relevant corner. I really wish they had used the dynamism of the format to greater effect in telling the story. For me it is this spatial mingling between the viewer and the viewed which is the advantage of promenade theatre.
At times this possibility was for example tantalizingly realized to great effect. In between scenes we were subjected to some very sinister sounding noises while a group of early noughties televisions (a great period touch) played news stories from the era. The fact we were isolated and exposed in the middle of the stage made us aware of this disturbing and nauseous sensation that in and among the everyday, something is not quite right. This for me is what makes Promenade theatre unique and worthwhile – it doesn’t let you escape. I was told by director Dom Applewhite that the sounds were deliberately designed to invoke ideas of circularity, which certainly chimes well with the holistic fit of the three stories and the sense of being encircled in the middle of the space. I wish more imersive strategies such as these had been pursued. This criticism, however, overlooks the immense effort required in making the set, which really deserves to be seen. Some of the subtle technical accomplishments, like wiring the TVs to somehow turn on at the right moments must have taken a lot of work and dedication. Indeed the play as a whole, when we consider its proficiency of executionâ€¨ in the light ofâ€¨ its visionaryâ€¨ ambition really deserves recognition as a real achievement for the Experimental theatre club.