Thursday, May 21, 2015

'Sense of an Ending' at Theatre503, 20th May 2015

I've got to admit, I wasn't exactly looking forward to Sense of an Ending. While I love theatre that grapples with weighty subjects, I couldn't quite imagine how the horror of the Rwandan Genocide could possibly be translated on a fringe theatre stage above a pub. Then again, Theatre503 are vying for the top position in my personal Premier League of London theatre; I've never seen a bad play here.

I still haven't. Ken Urban's Sense of an Ending is an extraordinarily powerful piece of theatre that approaches this most difficult of subject matter with confidence, intelligence and a surfeit of humanity. 

Based on a true story, we follow New York Times reporter Charles (Ben Onwukwe) as he investigates the involvement of two Benedictine nuns in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Sisters Justina (Lynette Clarke) and Alice (Akiya Henry) are about to be sent to Belgium from Rwanda to stand trial for crimes against humanity and homicide. The accusations are that the nuns, who are both Hutu, were faced with hundreds of Tutsis seeking sanctuary from the horrific ethnic cleansing sweeping across Rwanda. When the Interahamwe Hutu militia arrived, the charges allege the nuns them with petrol and looked on as thousands of men, women and children were burned alive.

Aiding the reporter are soldier and guide Paul (Abubaker Salim), deeply suspicious of this uninformed outsider globally broadcasting his views about something he has no direct knowledge of. We also soon meet his friend Dusabi (Kevin Golding) who, as the only known survivor of the massacre, might be the key to the truth of what really happened.

Charles functions as our viewpoint character, his opinion and emotional state roughly linked to that of the audience. His role, as laid-back impartial interrogator, is to unearth some truth behind the multiple stories he's presented with. Understandably, his initial reaction is to doubt that two nuns could perpetuate such an atrocity, figuring that they're merely useful scapegoats for wider crimes. But the more he learns the more his opinion changes, the aloof reporter gradually charting a moral black hole from which no light escapes.

The staging is minimalist but high impact. A wooden floor demarcates the edge of the stage and a semi-opaque series of plastic boards partially conceals the rear. The effect is that the scenery almost appears to bleed into the audience space, subtly eroding the fourth wall and emotionally involving us. The rear of the stage functions as a hazy window through time, dead characters appearing as hazy memories.

It's a hugely effective way to separate past from present, ably aided by Joshua Pharo's ambitious and perfectly executed lighting design. It's usually a bad sign to discuss lighting in a theatre review - generally suggesting you've run out of things to say - here it's an integral part of proceedings, with key characters lit in bold, primary coloured chiaroscuro. Elsewhere, subtle touches abound, from the gently moving lights flickering through wooden slats, to gradual dimming as we work through trauma, through claustrophobic sudden darknesses that coincide with emotional peaks.

But ultimately, all this top notch stagemanship comes in service to the uniformly extraordinary performances. It'sdifficult to single anyone out for special praise, but even so, Lynette Clarke and Akiya Henry as the two nuns are jawdroppingly amazing. The characters are an apparently paradoxical mix of spirituality, femininity and horrific cruelty, elements that seem impossible to knit together. Yet the two manage it swimmingly, gradually peeling back layers of deception and delusion to reveal their corroded souls.

Credit too to Kevin Golding, whose recounting of the massacre is so disturbing and evocative left the audience so stunned you could hear pin drop. Dusabi is a broken man, his rheumy eyes and slumped posture speaking of a man who is almost literally the walking dead. When he finally launches into his testimony the lighting drops, he asks the reporter to close his eyes, and walks 'us' through the  experience. As he did so the hair stood up on the back of my neck and my palms became clammy. Anything that achieves that is something special, a moment up there with anything I've seen on stage in the last few years.

Outright recommending Sense of an Ending is a tricky proposition. This production has the power to ruin people's nights. As I lay down to sleep last night I couldn't get it out of my head and it was the first thing I thought of when I awoke. But it's a stunningly effective piece of drama, exploring the very limits of human behaviour, morality and, eventually and blessedly, forgiveness. This is by no means an easy experience, but it is a tremendously important one.


Sense of an Ending is at Theatre503 until 6th June. Tickets here.

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