Tuesday, September 29, 2015

'Bloodletting' at the Bread and Roses Theatre, 25th September 2015

It's 2043 and life is shit. Britain has finally gone full dystopia, just as we somehow always knew it would. Building upon the stratified society of the 2010s, this future is sharply divided between the haves and have nots. In the haves camp is Bea (Cathryn Sherman), a septuagenarian living the a gilded life in a luxury flat. Representing the have-nots is Abi (Rebecca Pryle), a poverty-stricken yet fiercely intelligent young woman trying to scrape together the money to get into university and study medicine. 

The best and most lucrative way for her to achieve this lies in her veins. Young, healthy blood is a valued commodity for the elderly rich, staving off senility and wrinkles. And so, cannula firmly wedged into her arm, Abi pays periodic visits to the "vampire" Bea, siphoning blood into her creaky veins.

Writer Emma Gibson's future a chillingly plausible one. Recent experiments conducted on mice, suggest that old mice that receive infusions of young blood experience a burst of brain cell growth. Also, as birth rates decline and life expectancy increases, the average age in Britain will begin to skew upwards, meaning the young will increasingly have to work in service of a creaky elderly population. We already live in a baby boomer housing market, where fixation on property value keeps prices unaffordably high for young buyers.

More broadly, Gibson's future is a logical extension of the free market capitalism so enthusiastically espoused by modern Conservatives. She shows us a world where everything has become a commodity, from the blood in your veins to your sexual organs to the organs in your body (valued by shifty body parts dealer Caleb (Sam Wilkinson)). Layered on top of this is a world of classist privilege, where the working class are forced into menial jobs to serve the bourgeoisie and gently steered away from education and jobs.

As a political statement Bloodletting is blunt. It's allegorical future all but beats you about the head with references (among others) to the modern state of the NHS, sincere criticism of the Conservative government and tuition fees. Characters occasionally break into didactic speeches that so nakedly convey the writer's politics they may as well start using Powerpoint slides.

But you know what? I'm fine with that. Subtlety is all well and good, but sometimes you need to beat an audience over the head with your point. There's a thrilling unadulterated rage in this play, which has no time for pretentious allusions. This is writing a play like firing a gun, something also felt in its brevity. At a scanty 50 minutes, Bloodletting says what it wants to say without any faffing around and I respect that.

Bloodletting's political prescience is the best thing about the play. Everything else is... alright. Though the world Gibson creates is plausible, her dialogue is a bit thinly written with a couple of seriously groanworthy moments. Clumsily exposited in the first couple of scenes is the existence of a mutated HIV, all but guaranteed to kill within five years of contracting it. Given that the heroine prides herself on the purity of her blood, you can probably see where this one is going. Even so, it's difficult to suppress a cringe when she exclaims "You've infected me with HIV-M!"

The writing deficits are exacerbated by performances that settle at competent. Best is Cathryn Sherman's Bea, who mixes up a cocktail of casual superiority, class guilt and self-disgust that serves ther character well. Pryle and Sherman are a slight step down; Abi's frustrated intelligence and despair isn't communicated particularly effectively; and Sherman makes the most of an extremely broadly sketched character.

This isn't any great shakes in staging either. I don't want to criticise too much on this, as there's obviously budget constraints at play. That said, a couple of tables and chairs don't particularly evoke a nightmare future.

For all these flaws, I dug Bloodletting. That it works at all is entirely down to the righteous indignation that fuels the writing. Clearly cathartic for Gibson, the play intelligently diagnoses what's wrong with society and stands as a stark warning of the ideologies of selfishness, commodification and classism. Sure it's a little creakily constructed, but I'd rather see a creaky play with something to say than a glitzy big-budget void.


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