[Review:] CHIAROSCURO, Bush Theatre, London.

Written by Jackie Kay and directed by Lynette Linton, Chiaroscuro is a powerful, enlivening and unique performance. It tackles discourse on the place of female homosexuality in society with poignancy and realism, using race and culture as a way to pre-heat its exposure of this issue.

Aesthetic decisions (set design by Moi Tran) in this performance are very clear. For the most part, they are minimalist, the action taking place in localised lighting states with very few set pieces, usually just a seat for each performer or one seat shared by two. There is, I must say, a slight disconnect in the visual minimalism offered everywhere else in the performance when considering the rather overwhelming aesthetic offered in of the beginning and end scenes.  The beginning scene not only offers two raised platforms for a keyboard and drum kit, and a microphones for singing and guitar play, but ground cluttered with floor tacks, pillars decked with mirrors and cables, and a huge chest of props in the centre of it all. There is a lot going on. At first, this is not so demanding visually, but with time, and especially when performers enter the stage to further cramp it, it does become rather untidy. The end scene follows this same principal, but this time, all performers are dressed in vibrant, glittering sequin jackets and Preeya Kalidas (playing Aisha) is venturing out into the audience. It is almost too much.

All of this being said, the opening visual does have positives. Creating its very own, real-life chiaroscuro with silhouettes and shadows cast onto the floor by the lighting’s bold blues and pinks (lighting design by Jose Tevar), we are successfully transported to a nightclub, gig or some rehearsal area for live performance. More on that later. When the performers finally enter, however, is when the play really kicks off, immediately defining its own original and potent style.

The performers communicate at first openly with the audience and themselves, creating a sense of openness, invigoration and excitement as they prepare their instruments and start to perform. What follows will be a mixture of closed dialogue, asides and spoken word poetry. All of these are melded together fantastically fluidly and are readdressed again and again to develop a sense of mood, texture, rhythm and personality. This performance should stand as a reference-point for how different theatrical modes of expression can blend together successfully within a singular performance. Alongside style comes the performance’s method of transitions which are most commendably smooth, fluid and effective. The music (directed by Shiloh Coke), lighting and set changes made for unique transitions which felt effortless and otherworldly. Perhaps this smoothness was not absolutely polished on the night I saw this performance, however; from the performance’s midpoint onwards, performers were just slightly too slow to get to their places or off stage.

Whilst the performance style of this play was for the most part very clear, there were still some moments which made for a stylistic disconnect. These moments usually found themselves paired with the representation of Opal’s (Anoushka Lucas) mental struggle – e.g. Opal’s singing is interrupted by a blackout; the rest of the ensemble then enter the stage and walk quickly and aimlessly across the space, mocking her into their microphones; they then surround her, their surreal cacophony greatening until it is broken sharply by reality. This is much too lively and contrasts greatly with the otherwise realistic acting style. It is one of a few rudimentary scenes where it feels as though the director has made the classic error of “theatremaker wants to show tension and climax so makes everything dark, loud and drilling”.

CHIAR - Mirror.jpeg

Realness is a huge redeeming quality about this performance, which is why moments like that take away from its believability, illusion and momentum. Another likeable effect is had when we notice that the performers are no longer playing their instruments but that this liveness has been replaced by pre-recorded tracks. To see the performers actually playing these instruments, each demonstrating themselves as versatile and talented show-people, is refreshing, endearing and powerful. Unless the backing track repeats the melody that the performers have created, blends in seamlessly and serves as transition music as the performers abandon their instruments and move on to the next scene, backing tracks should be avoided. It felt much too unrefined and tacky to watch the performers mime their instruments. On this note, there were also rather notable moments where vocals were a little too off-kilter. The beginning was weakest for this. The very end was also not as effective as it could have been but this was due to diction. It was rather difficult to understand the performers, and for the ending, especially with one as cathartic and empowering as this, it is crucial that everything be comprehensible. But overall, these performers had very soothing, confident and mellifluous singing voices.

Enough said about aesthetic and style, I would like to say a bit more about the writing, particularly its content. This performance is charged – very cleverly and subtly – with politics. As I mentioned in the introduction, the main two politics concerned in tis performance are that of race and culture, and female [homo]sexuality. As aforementioned, the discourse on race and culture quickly became a way into that on lesbianism, which is most dissatisfying, as the two were presented as having equal significance and importance in this performance very early on. This performance deals with perceptions and how external, sociocultural perceptions can impact the perception of the self. This focus on the self is represented rather crudely in regards to cultural identity, evoked primarily by Opal’s aversion to mirrors, yet Opal and Beth’s (Shiloh Coke) relationship seems to come to consume the majority of the performance’s material.

The discourse on race and culture and related self-perception become secondary to the discourse of sexuality, and, instead, race and culture becomes a way of critiquing, politicising and moralising female homosexuality and its likability. This is even perfectly symbolised by Yomi (Gloria Onitiri) handing over her black doll to Beth. This doll has a poignancy which extends past the significance it is allowed to have in this performance, and it is disappointing to see it squandered in such a way. I would be very careful as to what content one lays out at the beginning of the play and how one treats this content throughout. It is important that a performance not only exposes political injustices but that it also finalises its themes or reaches some sort of conclusion on them, even if it is a negative and indecisive conclusion which doubts solutions and consequences. Put in other words, everything you lay down in a performance must go somewhere, do something, have some sort of significance, not fade away into the plot.

Despite many of the disequilibria or uncertainties that this performance holds, I must say that this is a very energised, unique, heartwarming and cathartic performance. The performers are inviting, endearing and powerful, and the content addressed is current, hard-hitting and poignant. With an original style and engrossing music, this performance is both heart-wrenching and entertaining. It is for these reasons that I rate this performance so highly.

“An inclusive and heartwarming performance tackling poignant issues with impressive originality and fervour.”

4 Stars

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