Saturday, September 13, 2014

'You're Always With Me' at the Lost Theatre, 12th September 2014

You're Always With Me is a curious piece of theatre that often feels like it's fallen out of a time warp.  Written by Soviet playwright Ilyas Afandyev in the early 60s it's a chewy chunk of social realism about factory workers, pokey flats, familial betrayal and love found in odd places. This is the the first English production of a play that seems to have made little cultural impact outside its native Azerbaijan - using Google as a metric, the only search results for the play link to this production and it merits but a passing mention on Wikipedia in Afandyev's bibliography.

So what have we been missing out on?  This is of an unlikely love story of middle-aged factory owner Hesenzadé (Doug Devaney) and the teenage Mergilé (Stephanie Harte).  Hesenzadé is a solitary widower, introduced happily chatting away to what turns out to be the ghost of his wife.  Despite being eligible, financially secure and handsome he never remarried, transferring his paternal emotions onto his employees.

Meanwhile Mergilé is a girl desperately in need of a bit of kindness.  Following the death of her father in World War II her mother, Mezaket (Zara Plessard) married the dastardly Faraj (Karl Niklas). He's a petty domestic tyrant, marching around the house hissing orders, terrorising the family, purposefully spilling orange juice on the floor and generally being a bit of a dick.  Now he wants Mergilé gone, intending to convert her bedroom into his study. So, putting the clamps on Mezaket he demands she choose between her husband and her daughter.  Goodbye Mergilé.

With Mergilé miserable, lonely and needing a job it's all too natural that she latches onto the fatherly Hesenzadé.  As the two grow closer the town's collective eyebrow slowly raises and Mergilé's mother angrily tries to convince the two to knock if off.  And thus drama is sown.

This is a curious love story.  Mergilé is all over Hesenzadé like jam on bread, practically throwing herself at him in a series of clumsy flirtations. She cleans up his flat, makes him tea and pays him increasingly bizarre compliments.  A highlight is when she calmly explains she's been secretly observing him through the window for years, in particular claiming that his hands have become powerful symbols of security and strength for her.  Frankly if a girl said that to me I'd be nervously eyeing the door and worrying about the health of my pets.

But Hesenzadé apparently takes all this in his stride, spending most of the play calmly sitting on a sofa sipping tea.  I never once got the impression that he was even a little bit romantically inclined towards Mergilé.  Instead he treats her with affable politeness, offering up fatherly nuggets of wisdom and treating her romantic advances with polite tolerance.

I'm genuinely not sure if this total lack of romantic response from Hesenzadé is intentional or a flaw in the performance or translation.  Confusingly in the final scenes he appears to undergoing some kind of teary heroic sacrifice by leaving Mergilé and setting her up with a younger man. Considering he's spent most of the play nonchalantly treating her as a semi-pleasant distraction this all feels a bit unwarranted.

The upshot of this is that Mergilé ends up looking increasing barmy, descending into dreamy romantic bliss over the most unlikely of candidates.  She's a rather simple creature to psychologically diagnose: with "Daddy issues" written all over her.  Her idolisation of her dead father, hatred of her stepfather and transference of these emotions onto Hesenzadé is bordering on dramatic cliche - especially when she apparently begins to properly crack up and begins seeing her wicked stepfather in every other man.

It's difficult to work out precisely why You're Always With Me never quite gels.  Is it the translation? The performances? The direction?  Is the play old-fashioned? Am I missing some 1960s Soviet allegory?  Whatever it is, it's fair to say that there's something malfunctioning.

By and large the cast do a decent job with often clunky dialogue.  Devaney and Harte don't even have a smidge of romantic chemistry, but their respective tranquillised/manic personalities at least make for a interesting combination of characters. Plessard as the angry, guilt-ridden mother makes a decent stab at combining the two emotions. Niklas ends up in Disney villain territory as Faraj, but throws in a much needed shot of comedy as harried factory supervisor Badal.  Sadly there's not really much scope for anyone to really cut loose, especially as many potentially dramatic scenes are hamstrung by being conducted over telephone.

As the curtain fell my first thought was "is that it?"  It's not that You're Always With Me is a particularly terrible production, but there's not a great deal to recommend about it.  You can tell that this is a play with a point - what that point is is beyond me.

You're Always With Me is at the Lost Theatre until the 27th of September.  Tickets here.

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