[Review:] ANTHROPOCENE, Fourth Monkey Actor Training Company, London.

The image the audience are presented with as they enter the performance space is sensory, peaceful and light. Two performers, Megan Noakes and Max Curtis, lie together under an ascending and falling blanket of plastic guided by the rest of the ensemble. The image is airy and serene. When lighting states change and this image is recycled, it becomes elemental: the blanket, now blue or green, seems to take the form of water, displacing itself airily and fluidly.

This image is beautiful and most definitely raises a concern similar to the age-old concept of the swimming swan: graceful above water, frantic below to keep itself afloat. Whilst we are presented with a certain tranquility, it is the material, plastic, which produces it. Whilst potent in its message, this image is significantly overused in the arts at the moment and hence becomes rather unoriginal and bland. It seems that the rather literal and direct approach is the only approach of late to smother the theatre. Nevertheless, this plastic sheet becomes a staple for this performance. When it has seen its end, it is replaced by a long sheet of, what I assume to be, polycotton fabric, and its usage is pretty much the same.

This performance’s material does become highly repetitious and, unfortunately, I must say quite boring in places. Children playing hide-and-seek, tumbling in and out of the fabric becomes a recurrent, if not constant and overused, motif, and it disallows the performance to say much else. It could do with a serious edit in this respect.

Overall, this performance is trying to tackle two worlds: Mia’s personal world, her life and journey; and the external world, the deteriorating and manic. It was successful in demonstrating the realities of each but not the effects that the external world was having on Mia or how these worlds really related to one another. This was crucial because, otherwise, the worlds seem disconnected and bizarre to pair with one another.

It felt as though the ensemble were depicting singular and unrelated snippets of human life. What is missing is a stronger, more direct common thread, For example, I imagine that the incorporation of the Tech Giant (Abigail Smith) is supposed to link capitalism, mass production and buying incentives with the destruction that high-brand manufacturers, factories and gross consumerism cause to the environment and natural world. This connection, however, the very thing which justifies its presence in a performance about the Anthropocene, was not made, nor was any of this related directly to Mia herself as a mother. All we got from this scene was that Mia wanted to buy something… This scene’s significance was then further distanced by and lost to the rapid succession of vines, pregnancy tests and the milestones of growing up… and then suddenly Mia is losing her child to a monsoon? Everything felt very disjointed and unrelatable.

More crucially, if Mia is so worried about seeing her child grow up in such a broken, frenetic and diseased world, and if this is the crux of the performance, I fail to see why director William Townsend would have her child grow up so problem-free and so quickly. Within minutes, we fast-forward through her child’s (Liberty Bliss) life and see absolutely nothing of the external world and its impact upon either of them. We are unsure if Mia’s suspicions and concerns were justified and realistic, nor are we able to find relief if they had no effect whatsoever. We are not shown anything. On this note, I also felt that Mia’s relationship with her daughter is very oddly depicted as she is dismissed by her and runs, instead, to her father. There is very little to go off of in this performance to understand the actual function of the child in Mia’s life or Mia’s relationship with her, once she is born. It is also rather easy to feel cheated when we have waited so long for Mia’s child’s birth, and then she’s an adult within two seconds.

Being that the performance is supposedly about the Anthropocene and its challenges to new-mother Mia, I was surprised to see how little the Anthropocene featured in this performance. A plastic sheet, a few news reports and a monsoon are not enough to contextualise the dramatic text in the Anthropocene epoch. Other, less important moments, were also enabled too readily to divert us away from the main plot, such as seemingly unrelated vines like ‘Look at all those chickens’. These moments of comedy should have served more as moments of repose rather than being so deeply integrated and consumptive as they were.

Anthropocene

As for movement, I would have liked to have seen more variation, particularly in scenes involving the fabric or plastic sheet, but also in the overture: Noakes and Curtis’s yanking one another back to resume their snuggling became very overdone very quickly. As a simple note, when the couple are on the floor in the actual beginning, it would be more effective to start to move into the next position as soon as the plastic sheet is raised; otherwise, it seems too artificial and robotic. It should look as though the rising of the sheet gives glimpses into a reality that is already happening, not one which awaits our viewing for animation. I should also note here the importance of discarding the material properly, not just off the side of the stage but well out of view. As well as being more visually pleasing, this would have also prevented some performers tripping over it as they did.

Topography is a big problem for this performance. It is clear that performers are attempting to give both sides of the traverse stage a good view, but this dampens the overall movement. It is acceptable to have one side see something over the other, as long as this is balanced overall. Decide confidently on one side to show the movement to if you feel it is tricky to show it to both, and make a habit of performing neutral movements in profile view – something which was done in this performance but not often enough.

Whilst music was quite repetitive, it did do its job in creating a successful atmosphere. Lighting, on the other hand, was very pleasing overall, but I would like to see more dynamism, more state changes that reflect the chronology of the performance. The absence of stage lighting and the use of handheld LEDs is always intriguing, though I feel their usage was ommittable in this performance. It should also be noted that when they are used in what I shall call the news reporting sequence, performers should decide whether the news is coming from them as presenters/reporters or if they are simply ‘reading’ the news from the light source. In other words, when delivering the news, are you directing it to Mia or to the audience? Decide on only one whose mode address all ensemble members will use in this scene.

This performance has a lot of potential, and its material is very promising when considered singularly. It just needs some tweaking to join these personal and external worlds together and to reflect on what material and whose voices are the most crucial to this performance and which ones can be deleted – and it could definitely benefit from less of the running/hiding children!

As a personal reflection, though, I do find it very sad and most dissatisfying that even when the Anthropocene makes a titular appearance, our focus still remains on its effects on ourselves as humans.

“A mesmerising and pretty performance but in need of careful structural readjustments.”

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