Friday, April 28, 2017

Review: 'Divine Chaos of Starry Things' at the White Bear Theatre, 27th April 2017

Divine Chaos of Starry Things reviewed by David James

Rating: 1 Star

Paul Mason: award-winning journalist, best-selling author, and now the writer of a terrible play. This one hurt. Not because it's exceptionally, eye-wateringly, bad, but because I'm a big fan of Paul Mason's writing. I adored PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, an exceptionally well-written book that analyses contemporary economics with supreme clarity and confidence. I hold the guy in such high regard that when I was invited to see his foray into playwriting I leapt at the chance.

Divine Chaos of Starry Things is the story of the deportation of French anarchist Louise Michel. She was a key player in the Paris Commune, a socialist revolutionary government whose control of Paris (from 18 March to 28 May 1871), was bloodily ended by the arrival of the French Army. The captured Michel was unrepentant, daring her judges to sentence her to death, saying: "Since it seems that every heart that beats for freedom has no right to anything but a little slug of lead, I demand my share. If you let me live, I shall never cease to cry for vengeance." Badass.

Instead she was deported, along with fellow Communards, to New Caledonia a remote Melanesian island 1000 miles off the coast of Australia under French colonial control. Mason's play chronicles her time on the island as she forms a relationship with the native Kanak people and refuses to let isolation dim her revolutionary spirit.

That's the skeleton of what's on stage, though if you went into this show completely blind you'd be oblivious to most of this information. Divine Chaos of Starry Things is supremely unconcerned with establishing a narrative foundation, assuming the audience is already familiar with Louise Michel and the events of the Paris Commune. Perhaps sadly, this an assumption too far. After a brief opening scene we're unceremoniously taken to New Caledonia, where the particulars of the regime our characters have to suffer under or even their living arrangements are never clearly defined. 

A mitigating caveat, the opening of the play was supposed to have scene-setting projections telling us when and where the action takes place, but technical troubles meant these didn't appear. I'm not sure what these would have said, but it's reasonable to assume they would at least have helped establish the scene. But hey, you can only write about the play you've seen.

This lack of clarity quickly undermines the characters' political zeal. It's difficult to get fired up by Michel's revolutionary ambitions if you're not really sure what system she's battling against. This isn't helped by the lack of an on stage antagonist: the cast of characters limited to four women ex-Communards and two Kanak warriors. These characters amble through scenes with the propulsive energy of a rubber duck, breaking the rule of show don't tell by describing interesting sounding events that we don't get to actually see.

Worse, Louise Michel's dialogue is declamatory and overly didactic, with little insight into her as a person rather than a cold vehicle for revolutionary rhetoric. She's frequently put in the unsympathetic position of hectoring her fellow prisoners on showing insufficient revolutionary zeal by even considering accepting pardons. It's obvious that Mason holds Louise Michel in high esteem, but his dramatic interpretation lacks basic charisma. If this was your first exposure to Michel, you'd wonder what the fuss was about.

Performances follow a similar trend, with the personalities of the characters indistinct and the dialogue stilted. It's telling that by far the best performances are delivered by Jerome Ngoadi and David Rawlins as the Kanak warriors. Once you get over their liberal-baiting costumes they're a striking on stage presence, often balefully observing from the edges of the action. It's telling that the sharpest emotion I experienced all night came courtesy of them shooting silent accusatory stares into the audience during the interval.

That brief moment of excitement aside, this is an indigestible play populated by uninteresting characters who don't do much of anything and whose conflicts take place off-stage. As the first half hour trundled by I got to experience that horrible feeling of anticipation (awesome, a play by one of my favourite journalists!) evaporating away, with the hope that things might improve shrinking by the minute.

Mason is attempting to use Michel's inspirational actions as an example to contemporary audiences that we don't need to silently put up with the shit ladled onto us, and that even in the most desperate of circumstances liberational revolutionary action is achievable. That he's absolutely right doesn't change the fact that Divine Chaos of Starry Things inspires first disappointment and then eventually just boredom.

Divine Chaos of Starry Things is at the White Bear Theatre until 20th May. Tickets here.

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