Sunday, May 8, 2016

'Nude' at The Hope Theatre, 7th May 2016

It's one of the first proper summer evenings of the year. Upper Street is thronged with happy people who've finally broken out their shorts and strappy tops and the Hope and Anchor pub is humming with happily sunbaked beer drinkers. From the box office a yell goes up "The doors are now open for tonight's production of 'Nude'". Men glance at each other for a second then let out a collective bray of approval. 

If they did venture upstairs they may end up disappointed - Nude ain't nude. Instead it's a sober, abstract and poetic insight into relationships, as inspired by Omar Khayyám's 11th century masterpiece The Rubáiyát. On paper this sounds a teensy bit la-di-da. I have to admit part of me was thinking that my Saturday evening might be more enjoyably spent reclining in a park with a cool cider.

But I'm glad I experienced. Sure Nude is abstract as hell, but there were moments when the play felt like it was speaking directly to me, as if Paul Hewitt had dramatised portions of my romantic life. Judging by the hushed reception the play was getting I assume most of my fellow audience members felt similarly.

At the core is your basic boy meets girl love story. We meet Woman (Michelle Fahrenheim) and Man (Edward Nash) as they meet for their first date. From here we chart the trajectory of their relationship. It grows, blooms and eventually withers - evolving from romance to tragedy. We're guided by ever-present Fate (Roshni Rathore), who narrates, provides context and at times physically guides the lovers through their relationship. Fate delivers the poem Nude is adapted from, giving the piece lyricism, rhythm and a difficult to pin down sense of grace.

Hewitt contrasts the omnipresence of Fate's god's eye view with the domestic woes of the humans trapped within her sphere. This relationship is something of a laboratory for Fate - underlined by Minglu Wang's powerfully designed which confines the characters to an abstract, open-faced cube. On top of that, director Ian Nicholson stages in the round, meaning the action is hemmed in on all sides. A consequence of that is that you find yourself examining the reactions of the audience opposite, engaging in a intimate emotional communion as you wonder about their own epic loves and betrayals.

Man and Woman's thinly defined relationship allows us to identify strongly with them. The result for me were snatches of dialogue that felt as if they'd been ripped from my very heart - the biggest wallop for me the description of a couple lying next to each other post breakup and feeling their hearts hardening. That Nude can dredge up these emotions so effortlessly marks it as a rare experience, firing as much at the heart as the head.

The flipside of that is that when it does miss the mark it feels quite alienating. The plot eventually segues into terminal illness misery, which didn't really work for me. I don't think the quality of the work took an especially deep dip, but it was something I couldn't personally identify with. Not really a fair criticism I know, but it does mark Nude as a play that an audience member can only fully appreciate if they've lived through some of this stuff.

Throughout, all three performers instil their characters with a universal humanity - even the supernatural personification of Fate. Nash and Fahrenheim have genuine chemistry, love glitters in their eyes as they fall for each other, their interactions brimming over with casual physical intimacy. Rathore's Fate is a playful and occasionally faintly intimidating presence, moving in and around the audience and never passing up an opportunity to lock eyes with an audience member.

Nude isn't an easy watch. You have to give something of yourself up, allow yourself to dwell on repressed pain and let those countless failed relationships bubble to the forefront of the mind. Watching these lovers' woes you find yourself wondering where you might have made better choices in life. But if you open your heart to it and the play speaks to you, it's a theatrical experience like little else on the London stage right now.


Nude is at the Hope Theatre until 21 May, then transferring to the Forest Fringe. Tickets here.

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