Survivor review: ‘over-ambitious’

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Having never seen an original piece of student writing performed before, I was very excited to experience some pure innovation by Durham Student Theatre. I would like to say that I truly believe whatever the results, this is something that should definitely happen more regularly within DST, as it is such a good platform for experimentation of dramatic expression. Survivor, written by Adam Simpson, was certainly experimental, yet it was arguably over ambitious.

There were some fantastic aspects of the play. Having two of the main characters on stage whilst the audience arrived was sort of like a real life preview and, paired with the dramatic lighting and smoke, it worked to whip up anticipation. Sarah Macmillan and Charlie Keable’s freeze frame during this time reflected an incredible ability to maintain characterisation for a long duration of time. They should be commended for what would have been a very demanding and physically exhausting task, while the freeze-frame also reflected some of the themes that pervaded the play later on. The use of projection in the Assembly Rooms was inspired. Panic was brought to life by a projection of a countdown and an ever approaching shadow; nostalgia by projected drawing. I also really appreciated the music choices that interrupted dramatic episodes. I thought the selection of music was tasteful and gave the audience insight into what Simpson was trying to portray during the previous scene. Without an interval, this play was intentionally relentless in both dialogue and action, but the music helped to break this down, giving the cast a welcome breath, and the audience some light relief.

In his writer’s note, Simpson stated that he was ‘not really trying to say anything with this play.’ I appreciate the honesty of this statement and I really did understand his message, yet even the genius that was Beckett understood that portraying themes such as pointlessness and desperation requires a fast pace – even if it’s a fast pace of nonsense – and some comic interlude. The real drama was scarce and relatively unbelievable and Simpson’s comic interludes were often one-liners of sarcasm pushed into otherwise borderline melodramatic monologues that often felt forced and uncomfortable. It was quite clearly an effort to lighten a dialogue that was at times really quite repetitive and dry, but the method of delivery – though I felt it was the writing at fault, rather than the acting – was jarring.

It seemed to me to be The Hunger Games without the compelling action, or 1984 without the love story. Terminology was borrowed from each, but nothing was explained. At times, it was as pointless and as confusing as the world the characters seemed to be describing. Simpson’s world was certainly a dystopian nightmare, but it lacked proper characterisation; although I felt he understood the world he created, I did feel as though some more explanation could have been provided. Clapping was uncertain at the end, as the narrative’s lack of direction left the audience unsure if it was really over, while I also overheard someone telling the person next to them that ‘I don’t understand what just happened’ – perhaps a summary of my own reflections. I understood completely what Simpson attempted to do. The repetition was to represent the banality of the situation, of life under a totalitarian government; his prolonged pauses reflected the silence imposed on people under such a regime and the confusion felt by all. Yet, a balance needed to be struck between symbolic and boring. The monotony and repetition meant what began as exciting and ambiguous became uninteresting, as the narrative became too difficult to follow.

That said, the actors were impressive. With the script they got, they made the most of it. Keable’s performance of a tortured Guard, still coming to terms with his horrific and forced lifestyle, was convincing and emotional. Macmillan, though a little melodramatic at times, brought to life the sheer desperation of the script, and Layla Chowdhury maintained the confused, sarcastic and fighting nature of her character throughout.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the premise of the play; at times the acting was truly compelling and the staging was innovative, dramatic and really well-thought out. Simpson’s ambition was truly commendable, but the execution of the play itself was let down by the writing, which prioritised symbolism over entertainment. Though a well-meant endeavour, it was a little too pretentious for my taste.

‘Survivor’ was performed at The Assembly Rooms Theatre on Sunday, 30th April at 19:30.

Photograph: Buttered Toast 

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