Poisoned Polluted is currently performing at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London.
I shall start first with the writing. A contemporary dramatic text, writer, producer and actress Kathryn O’Reilly manages to capture in her writing an incredible amount of detail in very short and staccato lines. The writing definitely has a favourable amount of depth and intricacy and, where more poetic and fluid language is used, the effect is gratifying. A fine piece of literature. However, there is a certain clunkiness to the text in areas, most noticeably when these succinct and definitive lines are suddenly paired with loquacious monologues. These monologues seem to force themselves rather brusquely into the writing, seeming unnatural and disjointed.
There is a certain indecisiveness in this text, primarily in regards to its rhythm which causes for a rather unsteady beginning wherein we are presented three very different styles of speech: stylised (or abstracted) speech; then a slightly more fluid, realistic speech; and then, finally, lengthy and rather poetic and literary monologues. When Her (Anna Doolan) then addresses the audience in another, dramatic form of monologuing, combined with Sister’s physical movements around the stage, our understanding of style, of the manner in which this performances wishes to express itself, is further challenged and unsettled.
The introduction of the children’s apparent grooming seems rather casual in the writing, and not in a way that would represent the casualness in which this would have been conducted but in a fashion which treats it as a strange yet omittable feature of the story, one which seems to have no significance other than to estrange and shock. This means that when this feature shows itself it to be an integral part of the story, or at least of Her’s story, the impact and significance is minimised. Either this should be a slow, insidious build up, where joyous childhood memories become tainted, sullied and uncomfortable; or this shit of mood should be abrupt, dark and harrowing, a sudden turn of events, a painful realisation in an adult’s mature reflection. Had this have been more definitely communicated, however, I believe that the way this is left unspoken of throughout the play, only to return a few times and to ultimately result in conflict between the sisters, is a very well conceived, accurate and intelligent decision.
The manner in which this feature is revealed also means that it is not clear if this is something which Her is becoming more and more recognisant of as she grows older, something budding in her mind which she will later express to or question Sister on, or something that she had always known and had kept from Sister out of fear or commanded secrecy. This absence of information is detrimental to our reading of the play, in this way. It obscures our reading of Her’s emotions, feelings psychology and mind.
Sister’s drug addiction, on the other hand, is most efficaciously implemented into the narrative. What is clearly, in retrospect, a manifestation of behaviours, feelings and mindsets resulting from such is cleverly worked into the narrative as though normal and banal conversation. The revelation is a slow burn, if you will. Thus, when it is made clearer that Sister is, in fact, taking drugs, the revelation feels congruous and coherent; we are able to apply what we have learned about her character to our new reading of her. The only thing I would say that is negative about this narrative feature is that its representation is not particularly original or mindful, in that there is nothing particular or nuanced about Sister’s addiction that is not cliché, beyond expression through dance.
This leads me well on to movement (directed by Sophie Shaw). I found the movement in this performance to be particularly stiff and unseemly. First, there is the running around the stage, to all of its four corners. Being a forceful, energised movement, abruptly cutting it off makes it seems both visually unappealing and incomplete. To continuously stop such a vitalised action in its tracks makes the action seem indolent, as though its motions are being carried out lethargically to get the process over and done with. Every action must have a result or a point of arrival, a destination, unless there is a deliberately counteractive movement which cuts it off and takes hold of the motion, as it were. Here, there was no such sense of consequence, completion or deliberate incompletion, just awkward, unfinalised movements. There is not, I believe, enough utilisable space on this particular stage, both due to its size and its layout, and I recognise this as something which would inhibit the flourishing of these movements.
The next integral movement is a rather violent and demonstrative sequence where Sister expresses her sense of pressure, turmoil and distress. Though I would say that this sequence was, initially, rather unoriginal in its head-holding and body-crunching, and whilst I would note that this entire sequence was executed very stiffly by O’Reilly, I will say that this held a very varied and articulate repertoire. That bodily fluidity is key here, however, and I would urge O’Reilly to work on this, as this same stiffness is what rendered the running ineffective too.
Small and minute movements, however, seeming better conceived, were highly fluent, endearing and transportive. I refer primarily to the the hand movements around and across each other’s faces that Doolan and O’Reilly perform. Moments like these add texture, tone and subtext to the play, strengthening both its appeal and its believability as an existing world, with the use of an esoteric language that only the two characters and the performance itself understand.
On to characterisation. Doolan and O’Reilly have a peculiar yet engaging chemistry in this performance. They portray their characters well and are, overall, well recognisant of their characters’ emotions and intents. However, there is very little physical variation in their performance, and I feel that the text often carries them along to a certain degree. For example, the characters are shown at various years of age throughout the text, sometimes teenagers, sometimes older. This is purely inferable by the dialogue in this performance, with very little change in physicality –– if any at all. There is also little shift between Doolan’s narration of the play and her speech as Her within it, and I would have liked to have seen a stronger emotional range from her, especially in the early scenes.
As for theatrical components, I found set (designed by Mayou Trikerioti) to be very evocative. Symbolising expansiveness and, furthermore, loss, the mosaic-like backdrop of the forest conveyed a sense of space and also of memory. Being composed of many printed pieces of paper, and slightly misaligned, it seemed as though this was an image recreated by the minds of the characters in its vividness yet also its decadence. I would just be conscious of how well these pieces paper are mounted to the wall, as a few of them were falling off of the flat, which was most unbefitting.
The use of the chairs was, for the most part, quite clunky. This was because of their organisation, the two actresses bumping into one another a few times whilst organising them. Costume (also designed by Mayou Trikerioti) was coherent and effectively representative of the personality of the characters: youthful, childish and playful for Her, and rather blunt, butch and inelaborate for Sister. Lighting (Benny Goodman) drew focus very well and was not overwhelming despite its volatility and high usage, though it could have benefitted from a sharper focus in places. Lastly, sound (Nicola Chang) was very well designed and congruous with the performance. On the whole, theatrical components were more than satisfactory.
Overall, this is a very rich piece of theatre, one dealing with many interconnected, harsh themes. I would just be hyperaware of how the text is articulating itself both in writing and on stage and of the articulacy of the movements in this particular production.
“A gripping piece of theatre with a harrowing undertone but in need of some tweaking here and there.”