Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Undesirable Desire

At the Sherman

Sherman Cymru- Desire Lines , Theatr Mwldan Cardigan , May 10, 2011
At the Sherman by Sherman Cymru- Desire Lines The timing was unfortunate. The vagaries of the touring timetable meant that Sherman Cymru and Waking Exploits performed in the West within twenty-four hours of each other. While one company had the smack of energy and youth to it, the other had less the serenity and wisdom of age than a pall of frowsty, musty, crusty middle age.

Theatre can be anything. There is nothing wrong if it hardly moves. “The Weir” sold tickets by the tens of thousands. “Told by the Wind” travels to Chicago this month. Ghosts on stage are great. Anyone who has ever seen Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” can attest to its haunting poignancy. Nothing wrong with allegory either; “Everyman” as mediated by Hugo von Hoffmansthal, (the subject of Michael Frayn’s under-appreciated “Afterlife”) has an eternal popularity. But it works because the allegorical characters, Beauty, Strength, are given strong human shading.

A theatre of allegory or stasis or ghostliness needs one thing. That is a language that fits and a language that rises. The language of “Desire Lines” fails.

First, writing works by sharpness and freshness of detail. This is a declared piece about the Wales that has acquired full law-making powers. Yet the detail is fog. The train journeys go from “small country” via “Dullage” “Bastion” “Chavton”, “the Village”, “the Junction”, “Blue Rinse Bay.” A single reference says that Adam, the main figure, is a proof- reader. But then he has to move to big country. But were proof readers ever office-bound? Whether they were or not, proper writing does not leave any undetermined detail in its wake.

Second, the script does not understand how figurative language works. Metaphor and simile work by evoking a correspondence between two entities that were previously unrelated. But this fresh correspondence depends on logic, albeit the logic of imagination. If they do not hit home instantaneously they sit in the mind, they niggle and nag. That is the fate of a couplet like “What was it like to kiss death?”/ “I wish death was kissing me instead.”

“I’ve just hit a wall and I’m too tired to run through it.” Adam is a man, not the Incredible Hulk. Ergo he cannot run through a wall. A line spoken in the dark sounded as if a foetus is “wrapped up like a fist in a f**k.” As a simile it is plain false. It looks as though its motivation was scatological effect. Spoken in the dark it may have been misheard. But then the audience perceives what it perceives.

The language of relationships; a train employee asks a young woman for her ticket. As she rummages for it he salivates and comments “one deposit in the wank bank.” Arriva Trains may deserve a kicking on many counts but its on board staff are an amiable crew. Is the writer saying that the ticket collector has masturbated to climax in public within a couple of minutes? Dramatists do not leave their viewers puzzled.

Adam’s personal life is suffused with cliché. In facing discord within marriage: “I gave up everything for you. For you. For us.” “Let’s put everything in perspective…” “Now that you are having our child, that’s fantastic.” In this world a father does not want his son to get off the x-box, give up weed or do maybe just an itsy bit of homework. No, in the piece’s manner of vagueness it’s “I want our child to believe in himself” to spouse and “You’ve nothing to live up to, no shoes to fill” to son.

Portentous lines hang heavy. “Without pain, there’s nothing, Adam, you never understood that.” Actually, there is plenty. “A father should never saddle his son with the truth.” That’ll do with “Hamlet” then. “A child should be born with noise.” Eh?

Many people now find themselves yoked to an ailing parent for years, if not decades. As an experience it is unique in the quality of its testing. Here it is “the smell of piss on my skin stayed for days.” That is not so. The smell of urine is removable with water and soap. In its treatment of this most of painful of relationship the script evades all evocation of the reality. In its matching of earnestness with triviality it is quite characteristic.

“That’s what life is about. Just moving on” says a young man. It is repeated to underline its philosophical weight. I have never heard a young person talk of experience that did not have an element of gravity to it. Given that the over-fifties have grabbed the lot, robbed the next generation of jobs, grant-supported education affordable housing and pensions, the representation of the young here is superficial.

The marketing claims for this piece are grandiose. “Wryly funny and heartfelt” say the puffers. The Cardigan audience tittered once, at the fantasy of Adam snatching the phone from a fellow train passenger and bellowing into it. (Three characters are permitted to talk into phones, that most deadly piece of stagecraft.) “The piece traces the pulls and pushes that lead and drive us through life.” Not so. No depiction or revelation of motivation or the forces that impel one action over another are evident.

A gay teenager is portrayed as an effeminate queen. (“I need a stiff one.”) Thus is the theatrical representation of gays cranked back thirty years. Anyone ever wondered what became of Borat? He is alive and well and working in the literary department down Senghenydd Road.

“Desire Lines” played in the West 4th and 6th May, either side of election day. “It could not have been written without WAG and the March referendum” says the publicity “It reflects the current spirit and preoccupations of the nation both politically and emotionally.” In the week of referendum and election Glasgow got a blues-inflected socialist cabaret, Edinburgh a piece of guerrilla theatre “Welcome to the Hotel Caledonia”. In its lack of any social or political texture “Desire Lines” might easily have come out of Pyongyang.

Admittedly, it got a warm-ish response from reviewers at Chapter. Waking Exploits and Sherman Cymru played different venues. The former had waiting lists for available tickets. Thirty people turned up for “Desire Lines” at Mwldan, a reported twenty in Aberystwyth. To be the crucible for new drama is a privilege and a responsibility. Both took a vacation this Spring.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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