Seven years of neighbourly patronage of The Arcola Theatre recently led to my first Radio 4 documentary commission. A Tale of Two Theatres was broadcast on 3rd April and will be aired again on the BBC World Service on 13th May. Here’s a taste of how artistic director Mehmet Ergen’s work in Hackney is only half the story, as he lifts the curtain on the politics of performance in Turkey, in the wake of Taksim Square.
Category Archives: Theatre
‘They come here, they look but they do not see.’ The central paradox of journalistic endeavour in contemporary Nigeria is delivered by the character of the Porter, in the tradition of wise fools more insightful than their masters (and often their audiences) give them credit for.
In Fixer, Lydia Adetunji’s challenge is to make us see things for what they are- corruption, spin, deceit, blackmail- the lines of which are all too easily blurred in the dazzling Sub-Saharan heat, the glare of the media spotlight and the smoke and mirrors PR haze. The playwright is well-served by a production which strives for clarity of purpose on a bare thrust stage with minimal set and no costume changes. A battered airline seat doubles as a reconditioned plane and a makeshift bench; a reminder of the fugitive nature of the characters’ business- here today, gone tomorrow.
The 2009 play explores the damage wrought by so-called ‘damage limitation’, when a multinational corporation seeks to protect its interests in northern Nigeria. Here foreign correspondents, PR merchants and local militants alike can make or break fortunes and international headlines. Fixer is a modern morality play of oil money, hush money, even blood money, which changes hands rapidly. The characters know all too well that ‘everything has a price.’ Though their hungry eyes glint at the promise of security that the banknotes bring, it’s with clumsy haste and trepidation that they accept the unwieldy wads of dirty money, as if a nefarious game of pass the parcel were being played on a loop, with every player dreading the moment the music stops.
Like a playground game of one-upmanship, with its callous readiness for playing dirty and switching sides, directors Dan Barnard and Rachel Briscoe succeed in maintaining a sizzling energy throughout (and not only because of the oppressive heat of the Oval House lighting rigs). The entire cast remain on stage for the duration- hovering, poised at various ‘bases’ on the periphery of the stage, rather than retreating with a well earned sigh of relief between scenes. Similarly, it was a well-judged choice to run the play without an interval, the pace accelerated and the stakes raised by a refusal to let those on (or off) stage off the hook. Where this bid for theatrical athleticism backfired was in the en masse, blackout sprint back and forth- arguably a visual leveller of status with every character fleeing to save their skin, but in the relatively intimate space of the Oval House auditorium it registered as more Benny Hill caper than blind exodus.
Given Adetunji’s journalistic pedigree (she served six years at The Financial Times), the play is littered with well-observed media-speak and the archetypes of Fleet Street, from the young idealist, Laurence (Damola Adelaja), wet behind the ears but with a nose for a story, to ‘Dangerous’ Dave (Alex Barclay), the faded action man, to the ambiguous traitor Jerome (Robert Bowman) who has ‘moved over to the dark (ie. corporate) side,’ to Sara (Jennifer Jackson), the inscrutable ‘fire-fighter’ of the Consortium and of course Chuks (Richard Pepple), the resourceful, mercurial fixer of the title. With an uncompromising and unsentimental eye, the playwright shows up each and every player for falling short of the standards they preach- truth-telling, loyalty, ethics- all abandoned at turns in pursuit of a story, a fast buck, a corporate bonus. Only once did the accumulation of hack-cliché jar in my ear as too contrived, too self-conscious- ‘I’m on a deadline here, need to get this story in the bag!’ But then that is the superficial patter of the 24-hour news cycle- give or take ironic delivery- so perhaps it’s more telling that it didn’t quite ring true, even in the mouth of an otherwise convincingly jaded character.
The directorial team were faithful to an understated ending that sees the rival foreign correspondents thrown together on an outbound flight back to the UK. We hear a final chewing of the fat, a passing of the buck between young Turk and old soak but learn that despite appearances, they aren’t so polarised when it comes to justifying the rules of the reporter game. Amid the ‘stuff happens’ rationale of their post-mortem, we are haunted by the image of Chuks- a Mother Courage figure who sought to profit from the developer/ news-gatherer conflict, only to realise it was he who had the most at stake.
Click here to listen:Bridewell Theatre audio
The Bridewell Theatre stands in the shell of a Victorian swimming pool, housed in the Bridewell Institute in the heart of the City of London. It dates back to 1894 when it was founded to ‘provide social and educational facilities for the workers of Fleet Street.’
The pool was closed in 1972 and remained derelict until it was reimagined as an auditorium and performance space in 1994. I was treated to a tour under the stage by theatre manager, Lucy Hillard.
Photograph by Kirsty McQuire