Friday, 26 September 2014

REVIEW: Shoot, I didn't mean that/The Last Days of Mankind at The Tristan Bates theatre

The Tristan Bates theatre has opened its autumn season with a double-bill of plays that echo each other with stories going from after World War I to today.  These are Shoot, I didn’t mean that by Catriona Kerridge and The Last Days of Mankind: The Last Night by the Austrian Karl Kraus. What originally inspired this production is Time Zone Theatre and Austrian director Pamela Schermann, who invited British playwrights to respond to Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind and is now presenting the winning playwright’s work. The result is tense and controversial.

Shoot, I didn’t mean that presents us with four very different girls and women who are in some way connected to the cynicism behind wars and politics. 

Firstly, two schoolgirls are struggling to stay still during two minutes of silence on Remembrance Day. “I really want to see War Horse”, one of them says. We ask ourselves: is that really all she can associate with World War I? And is it her fault, actually? Later, she and her friend plan to travel to Syria, or Iran, or Irak ("same thing") in order to witness something big. While they are used to watching war zones on the news, they don't realise that these do not represent the entire geographic area. 

We also get to know a high level interpreter, perhaps at the UN, who is witnessing discussions about waging war and getting angry at the person she is working for for sleeping throughout the discussion. How much of these debates are properly thought through, how do you avoid mistakes? 

Finally, there is an English tourist (Juliet) in Austria who can’t seem to keep her right arm from waving straight up into a diagonal position. Throughout many dark humoured monologues, she tells of neo-nazis who start to follow her. 

Writer Catriona Kerridge's unusual and uncomfortable play is quite intriguing. The characters are well thought-out and unique, and the fates of the four women truly makes you think. However, it's too bad that two of the actresses needed to perform completely alone, without connection to the others. Juliet's story in particular is uncomfortable, but that is certainly what the playwright aimed for. Her telling of the multiple times over the past years when individuals made antisemetic gestures felt very relevant but shocking.

The Last Days of Mankind is an 8-hour long play, written between 1915 and 1922. Here, we witness the epilogue, The Last Night, which describes the tragedies of war and the indifference of those who made the decision to fire the bombs: all they want to make in the end is money. There is a good and amusing choice of direction when two journalists with cameras take pictures of the wounded in the trenches, and then of themselves (selfies). Do they know how to perform first aid, a soldier asks? Of course not, they are journalists!
While Kraus wrote about the Great War, Kerridge writes about all the great wars that have happened since, and are happening at this very moment. At times, the play becomes very topical, again, shockingly so. For me, the question this double-bill raises is: it's been 100 years since the Great War started - how, after all these years, can new generations avoid mistakes? The question, unfortunately, is left unanswered. 

I loved how the four actresses were so precise in their text and voice work: Alexa Hartley and Jocasta King as the schoolgirls used the advantage of the little space offered by the Tristan Bates Theatre to lower their voices during the Remembrance Day scene. They precisely portrayed the fears and excitements of young girls who don't quite understand the consequences of their actions, or more than what they see on television. Distantly, they reminded me of the two schoolgirls in the film Tamara Drewe. 

Alexine Lafaber, who had the difficult task of holding up her right arm for the whole of her speeches, was engaging and you could truly believe there was always someone in front of her. I do wish there had sometimes really been. 

Emily Bairstow showed great energy in her both her performances and also succeeded in us imagining her interpreter's booth although she was performing alone in the first play. 

Director Pamela Schermann succeeded in creating an engaging double-bill, with added tension thanks to the lighting and sound designers. I did not think the final film footage was necessary, but I am usually sceptical about screens in theatres.

Kerridge's play was exciting, but Kraus's was even more so thanks to the heightened language and the connection between the young women. The two plays nicely echoed each other, but I would have liked to see more connection between the women in the first part.

Review by Sophie Tergeist

Rating: ★★

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