Wednesday, October 28, 2015

'The Boat' at Theatre N16, 27th October 2015

I can't fault The Boat's ambition. Theatre N16's new home in Balham (they were priced out of Stoke Newington and can't afford to rebrand) turns the top floor of the Bedford Pub into the open ocean. A white boat sits in the centre of the room, surrounded by an undulating sheet of plastic wrap that laps at the audience's feet. Inside are two young girls (Pia Laborde Noguez and Cristina Catalina), their only companions Turtle (Matthew Coulton) and Gull (Gabriele Lombardo).

Told episodically, we follow the girls on an epic "odd-at-sea" as they head towards an unstated destination. As events proceed our protagonist philosophically ponders the nature of reality, belief and trust as she spirals into psychological breakdown.

The production busts down the fourth wall in the opening minute, where the 'Jellyfish of Sound' invites the audience to imitate the swoosh and wash of the ocean, sounds that'll be looped throughout the production. This deconstructionist tendency is felt through the entire production: characters' slipping into various foreign languages for a couple of lines, the gradual destruction of the set, the 'animal' companions dissolving into men in costumes and so on.

The show blurs the line between theatre and performance art; its best bits some genuinely interesting visual ideas. The best is death conveyed by the genuinely creepy image of smearing grey clay over a character's face. It effectively obliterates their features, creating a creepy idea of depersonalisation. The wet, malleable clay also conveys decay and decomposition alarmingly well - which combined with Cristina Catalina's top class corpse performance sent shivers up the spine.

But though individual moments work well enough, as a whole The Boat really doesn't. My main beef is that the entire show is written in brain-numbing prolix: I was paying attention (and taking notes) and I found much of the experience largely impenetrable. Narrative is jettisoned in favour of, for example, long-winded allegorical arguments about the nature of the moon that have the distinct whiff of stoner philosophising. 

Reading up on the show after I'd seen it I was disturbed to find that The Boat was, according to the company: "dealing ... with personal experiences of assault and the horrific human trafficking industry that plagues our world today….This issue is one of the tragedies of our time and a red-hot political button - precisely the kind of topic that contemporary theatre should be tackling. Unfortunately, swaddling the issue in layer after layer of suffocating metaphor and experimental staging sucks away the forthright anger and call to action that any piece touching on this topic should contain.

Frankly, dealing with the migrant crisis by having people hopping about pretending to be friendly turtles and mischievous seagulls, delivering enigmatic dialogue is straight-up gimmicky. The result is stilted, emotionally retarded theatre that revels in inaccessibility. This is an important topic - just give us the straight story and a clear message please.

The (admittedly uncharitable) conclusion I eventually reached was that all the cutesy lo-fi avant-garde trappings are there to disguise that the Emperor isn't wearing any clothes. A disappointing debut for Theatre N16.


The Boat is at Theatre N16 until 5th November. Tickets here.

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