By Alex Hart
Tom Murray’s Icons feels succinctly complete without falling into the trap of the simple. “Silence is the enemy. Silence is always the enemy.” Perhaps this is the primary message of the play, yet its central protestor appears to be a picketer without a cause. Icons cleverly refuses to choose between comedy and murder mystery, between wit and philosophy. Nor does the play select a single message to preach to its audience, instead asking us to untangle its web of chimeras for ourselves.
Set in Parliament Square, the stage is reigned over by the statues of Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Millicent Fawcett, Mahatma Gandhi. And one other. A single man in gold stands stockstill on stage before the audience even enters. He watches as a protestor totters about with his daughter, the cause of his fight forgotten but his ardour stoic as ever. He watches as a homeless man lies intoxicated, watches as he passes into stone. He even watches as police and paparazzi harass the square and its occupants, their flashing lights and booming voices invading the auditorium.
Alexander Cohen expertly engages the audience with this statue artist’s pun-tipped monologues, rallying sympathy for a character often passed by but rarely given a voice. And Cohen surely must favour method acting considering the endless minutes he remains inanimate on stage. Perhaps, like the statue artist, we too are all merely observers of action, forced into the role of bystander while the real world passes us by.
Or perhaps we are pointless protestors like Ben Willows’ character. When he initially careens onto the stage, his characterisation of old age is noticeably exaggerated. Indeed, the play’s overall style of performance is heightened in comparison to the proximity of the Assembly Rooms. This style certainly does not encourage escapism, but perhaps Murray does not wish the audience to forget their real lives anyway. Social media is scrutinised, cancel culture criticised, popular figures and movements dissected. And despite Willows’ challenge over posture, his passion at the play’s denouement remains an honest portrayal of a man’s integrity outliving his memory.
And while Jacob Freda plays a convincing drunkard, it is Isabella Thompson who largely drives the play’s energy. It is with Thompson’s character we identify, with Thompson’s character we urge to question the chalk outline and with Thompson’s character we want to bring light to the murder case. Icons might have garnered a bit more tension for the murder mystery to pull us through its moments of philosophy, but it still manages to successfully engage its audience throughout.
The icons of the past frequently act as the present’s most analytical commentators. The voices of Arnav Tewari-Sharma, Freya Barker, Cameron Ashplant, and Odi Oladuji animate the images of the statues officiating over the action, the heroes hilariously bickering to gain jurisdiction over Cohen’s mind. “You can’t be neutral… you can’t be inanimate” asserts the statue artist at one point. And while his body may remain still for much of the play, the statues behind him expertly reveal the mental struggle he suffers, as he questions whether activism is ever truly worth the fight. Aided by the superbly subtle lighting and sound design, the statues are spoken of as X-factor judges and chess set pieces, as angels, demons, racists, and heroes. Murray’s writing teases the audience with images and ideas, wafting them past us for judgement before finally tying them up in a thought-provoking little bow.
Icons combines the heroes of the past with the ordinary lives of the present. It merges the passion of activism with the defeatism of dementia. And it integrates the magic of live theatre with the realism of the current day.
This play is not a comfortable one. And that’s the source of its power.
Image Credit: Suffragette Theatre Company