Theatre in Wales

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Filling in the Picture

At National Theatre

Bordergame- National Theatre of Wales , www.nationaltheatre.org./bordergame#onlineplayers , November-30-14
At National Theatre by Bordergame- National Theatre of Wales The last production of National Theatre of Wales for 2014 incorporated the use of the Internet. The company and the makers of “Bordergame” have in turn suffered from a web effect. The Internet is a wonder at every level but it is also a jostling marketplace. Look to the online record of this event now gone and it shows how artists are at the mercy of the commercial policies of the large media players. Guardian Media Group has a commercial policy- questionable on three separate counts- which the other giants do not. Thus the result of a search displays a lop-sided view. The perspective of one critic, even one who is held in very high regard, is not, indeed cannot be, the full picture.

A survey of the range of responses is unviewable without subscription access. However, the view across the board reveals a great deal more to “Bordergame” than the publicly available sources reveal. There is also an omission. The tight word count imposed on reviewers from London is not going to permit space to look to the background and artistic development of the makers. Look to a review on this site of Give it a Name’s third production and the artistic lineage is clear. “Heart of Darkness” had only the modest scope of Cardiff’s 10 Feet Tall to play with but the areas of overlap and continuity are clear. Ingenious things are done with the audience. There is the same big theme of cultures and fates in clash. Information hits the audience from different sides. Sule Rimi is to be seen in both productions.

The critical views of “Bordergame” may be reduced to three elements. The first, and the one that matters most, is the impact. “A bold, deliberately ambiguous, unsettling piece” said the Financial Times. “Surprise at the final destination is quietly moving.” Four stars from the Sunday Times and “the experience remains unnerving” was the view of the Times. “The sense that your fate can be controlled by individuals operating on a set of hasty assumptions is deeply unsettling.”

The downside is the complicatedness- and complicated is not the same as complex- of structure and logistics “Its complex mechanics sometimes obstruct intellectual and emotional engagement with the issues” wrote Sam Marlowe. “Too many slack moments…when I longed for more detailed narrative content exploring real life stories.”

The third aspect was addressed by Sarah Hemming of a production “fraught with logistical challenges. But even greater are the ethical challenges.” The death toll of those who have died this century trying to bypass border controls is forty thousand, according to the International Organisation for Migration. Twenty miles from the Kent shore destitute Eritreans and Ethiopians fight each other in replication of the enmity between their home countries. It was the adoption of this subject for a game that unsettled the Guardian to write of “a very odd form of entertainment.” This site had some gamers lined up for a perspective but in the end the description made them reluctant. They did not want a game that was reality, at least in a sense real. Veteran Ian Shuttleworth was, and to his credit, the sole critical voice with mouse in hand and eyes on a screen. “The interaction is well structured” he wrote “but the intended lesson may well be washed away in the enthusiasm of vigilante gaming.”

“Bordergame” then is a production of ambition that itself roves along the borderline of theatre. There is an ambiguity to the whole concept, best expressed in the view that the element that mattered most was that which dispensed altogether with novelty of form, gadgetry, even actors. If real people end up being judged as the best thing in it, that asks a question or two about all the rest.

Reviewers from London are not going to look too deeply into the nature of a national theatre that is not their own. “Bordergame” rounds off a year of mirroring consistency. For all the “hi, gang” website mateyness the actual audience numbers are strictly private. The Arts Council of Wales may know them, but they may be guessed as modest.

Once again, those who are not fully abled are excluded. The normal theatre-goers of Gwent are not going to sign up for a production in “covert locations.” The company declined to issue tickets but made the supply of an email address mandatory to be permitted entry. It may astonish theatreland’s clone culture but there are those who for a range of different reasons are not digitally connected. And it is their national theatre too.

Lastly, a comment on price, if only because price is one of the four elements of the marketing mix. Entry to this piece of theatre required the purchase of a ticket on public transport. That set the de facto cost of admission close to thirty pounds, higher than that for Welsh National Opera. Take a look elsewhere. When the National Theatre of Scotland came to London’s Olivier, two and a half hours of true national theatre had a cast of eighteen, a stunning design and could be seen for fifteen pounds. “Great Britain” too has a cast of eighteen again, elements of great digital design and a front row day seat at the Haymarket Theatre costs again fifteen pounds. And the budget for both these national company productions included the cost of a playwright of experience.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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