Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me review: ‘haunting’

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An Englishman, an Irishman, and an American walk into a bar…but the drinks are imaginary, there are wooden boxes instead of tables, and the bar is a prison in Lebanon where the three men are being held hostage.  There’s Michael (Andrew Shires), an English academic, Edward (George Rexstrew), an Irish journalist, and Adam (Adam Simpson), a US doctor. All three of them are struggling against losing themselves and losing one another.

With an actual castle at their disposal, Castle Theatre Company (CTC) aren’t lacking interesting staging for their productions. This time, the audience were gathered in a World Heritage site. The Norman Chapel was built in 1080, which makes it Durham’s oldest building, but also the perfect place to perform a play. And this production really understood how to take advantage of the space. The high ceilings, the stone walls, the pillars, the dead silence, and the feeling of being transported to another time and place all helped to create the atmosphere of a foreign prison. The three actors’ ankles were tied to the pillars and, along with the small space and the lighting that multiplied these pillars into many prison cell bars, the audience directly sensed the claustrophobia of never seeing the outside world.

And that was the main, heart-breaking fear of the hostages. Their captors remained unseen and unknown, which reinforced the idea that, to the three men, they were the only people left in the world. ‘Everyday I just wanna go home’ was Adam’s Dorothy-esque mantra, a plea to ‘hear an American voice that isn’t my own.’ Although the American’s talk of jersey pants and San Francisco China Town may seem stereotyped, not to mention the Englishman’s plea of ‘I just want some tea!’, but the character’s constant, dream-like talk of their home countries was one of the only things keeping them alive.

That, and their imaginations. If you believe that watching three people in prison doesn’t make for good theatre, then think how they would keep themselves from getting bored. Answer: an imaginary bar with martinis and sherry, a performance of an Old English play using a bed sheet for a cowl, haunting Irish ditties echoed off the walls, and imagined letters to their loved ones. Cue the Englishman’s excitement when the other two men say they’re writing letters to their family; follow this by abject disappointment that the captors barely give them food, let alone pen and paper, so the ‘letter writing’ is sitting on a box, announcing what they would write if they had the chance.

Homesickness is not the only disease creeping into the cell. Madness and inhumanity also threaten the three men. ‘They don’t need to tear us apart,’ shouts the American, ‘we’re doing it to ourselves just fine.’ Three really is a crowd, as mockery about one another’s nationality evolves, thanks to the mental torment, into savage shouting and threats. This is where the actors came into their own. Authentically creating such intense emotion must be difficult, but Rexstrew, Simpson and Shires’ faces and body actions contorted into such a rictus of pain and anger that it seemed they’d also been trapped in this chapel for four months with nothing to do and no-one to see.

This Beckettian tragedy, inspired by a 1980s hostage situation in Lebanon, was beautifully evoked in this production. Only truly remarkable acting could hold an audience’s attention in the same setting, with the same three characters, and action limited to the reach allowed by their manacles. All the prisoners had was communication and dialogue, so that’s all the audience had too. But, using just their words, Simpson, Rexstrew, and Shires imagined an unimaginable situation, so haunting and claustrophobic that, when leaving the chapel, an intake of fresh air made you grateful for your freedom.

Photograph: Castle Theatre Company

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