Monday, March 30, 2020
Cross Pollinate Productions in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre, present EVERYBODY, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross. 6th March - 21st March. (Closed early as a response to the World Health Crisis).
I was especially keen to see this play, mostly because of the writer and his growing reputation as a force in contemporary American playwriting. AN OCTOROON - 2014 (seen in Brisbane. Needs to be seen in Sydney), APPROPRIATE - 2014 (again unseen), and GLORIA - 2018, which we saw last year at the Seymour Centre. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a subversive writer with a tremendous sense of comedy and balanced political/social critique - he is kind of fearless.
EVERYBODY - 2018 - is based on the 15th Century medieval mystery play - EVERYMAN. It tells of the Everyman who is summoned by Death, at the command of God, that he come and present his life achievements as a 'passport' to heaven (or hell).
EVERYBODY has a company of 9 actors, 2 of which play one role each throughout the play (Annie Byron (Death), Giles Gartrell-Mills (God and Host). 7 actors (Kate Bookallil, Caitlin Burley, Isaro Kayites, Mansoor Noor, Kate Skinner, Samm Ward and Michael Wood), playing all of the other characters, though not the same ones necessarily each night. Death has them choose out of a rotating basket their roles for the night - all of these actors have learnt the entire play. Just as in life their destiny is an accidental event. Every night Fate chooses Everyman and his world companions, to die and face his creator with a justification of his life.
Gabriel Fancourt, in his Directorial debut, adopts many techniques that contemporary theatre has available for him: recorded voice, microphones able to be 'treated' for sound effect (Felicity Giles), complicated light (Morgan Moroney), and the magic of 'haze' to keep it all swirling forward. The Set is an impressive podium of solid wood (Stephanie Dunlop - she also has created the Costume), draped with a green altar cloth covering a door - that when opened is the 'doorway' that we cross to enter the other world!
The play is full of direct intervention/participation with the cast seated in amongst the audience keeping one on edge that, "Yes", Death could be just waiting for me, seated beside me now and to cause me to wonder: "Am I ready to face a summary of my own life?" Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is aware of the strategic powers of the live theatre and in most of his works employs them.
This production is strong but not as good as the play.
Problem number One is the use of the 'treated' microphone that God uses to communicate (for some time) the premise of the play and later again when used by Death - the electronic treatment, the effect, obfuscated the text content and dominated our aural reception rather as noise - an irritating noise- resulting in an ignorance of the text content, as well, literally, giving physical pain!
The second and biggest problem seemed to me to be that in the task given (by the writer) to have 7 of the actors learn all of the rest of the text content and be ready, in the moment, to jump in and create the randomly assigned characters each night as 'owned' fully realised people was a tremendously difficult demand in which TIME, would be the necessary ingredient to solve the nuances of the humans they were asked to inhabit.
Were these actors afforded the TIME to find the solutions to own the people they were allotted in the witnessed lottery? It didn't seem so.
These actors were immaculate in the speaking (and miming) of the text but had not created individual figures representing fellowship, kin, goods, good deeds, etc. They were virtually 'mouthers' of text, having no supporting human dimension for us to connect, identify with, so that we could have an identification of a personal resonance in our (the audience's) own 'here and now'. The 'mouthing' of the text did not seem to be balanced with sufficient acknowledgement of the written syntax, which the writer has given signal space for the actors to use, to create the opportunity that would allow the audience to endow, invent, the unspoken, sub-text, of the dilemmas of the characters. This company remained actors reciting the text, jumping through technical demands of the production at the expense of exploring experienced truths, with an active development of the textual arguments to justify, explain, their character's problems.
There is bravery from this cast and company, Directed confidently by Gabriel Fancourt, imbued with a passionate sense of mission and achievement. As admirable, as that was, it was no compensation for the lacking of dimensional truths in the characterisations for it to be a fully satisfying confronting night in the theatre.
N.B. As a student I was once an actor in a version of EVERYMAN, and have Directed an adaption of my own for a school production, centuries ago. Recently, I also Directed a production of EVERYMAN, commissioned by the National Theatre in London, prepared by the then Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. A brilliant contemporary rendering of the original play for our times. It was Broadcast into our cinemas. That production by Rufus Norris, was overblown and unbalanced the writing of Ms Duffy, I reckon.