Tuesday, 24 April 2018

REVIEW: Moormaid at the Arcola Theatre

When it comes to understanding the times we live in, going to see a play written by French-German writer Marion Bott and directed by the Greek theatre director Zois Pigadas seems like the perfect activity to gain new perspectives and take a step back from ourselves to see a bigger picture.

This new show at the Arcola Theatre, produced by The Alchemist and Fine Line, takes us into the world of Melissa (Sarah Alles), an art teacher living in Berlin who we meet just as she decides to hang herself from her artist workshop’s ceiling with her favourite red cashmere scarf. Luckily, at least for us, her husband calls her mobile and soon enough, one of her ex-students, Mehdi (Moe Bar-El), appears on her doorstep. He is looking to reconnect with her, and we soon understand that the two have a past as lovers. While Mehdi can’t quite express what he’s feeling and seems haunted by his past (his deceased friend Khan is appearing to him), Melissa encourages him to pick up a paintbrush and join her in a night of expressive artistic expression. 

This is a really strongly directed piece, and we can sense an intense collaboration between the writer and director. The play takes various parts of life and adds strong symbols and choreography to them: in terms of human emotions, one thing what stood out to me was the use of breath and of water. Khan (Ali Azhar), who is stuck in an in-between world before the afterlife, can’t breathe and needs an inhaler. Later, as Mehdi prays or shows frustration, the rhythm of his breath is also highly emphasised. With regards to water, we first see Melissa after she has escaped Berlin’s rain and is drenched. Later, Mehdi wishes to wash Melissa’s feet after having washed his hands in a large bowl of water. Here, water has quite a cleansing status, introducing a new beginning in those two instances. 

What Bott is presenting us with here are two souls who don’t understand what is really keeping them alive. What is it that helps us wake up every morning? How, in this day and age, and at a time when Europe’s youth feels so alienated, can one still carry on? How can one honour one’s own life? In a very amusing scene between Mehdi and Khan, the two “brothers” talk of their mother’s delicious tagine, and of an imagined perfect evening eating and smoking. This prospect gives them so much joy, but how long does it last? 

We later learn that both of them were trained as Islamic terrorists (although the
word is never pronounced), which has probably resulted in where Khan is now and has created more pain than expected. In a particular scene where Mehdi gets angry, we are afraid the knives that Melissa has brought into the room will end up replacing the paintbrushes. The juxtaposition of the two objects is a nice touch. 

The three actors are fantastic in bringing out the humour in tragedy and in creating three distinct journeys. Alles shows the tiredness of her Berlin life (Mehdi even calls her “old”) mixed with a childish joy at her playful painting. Bar-El shows us a painful emptiness at having so little to hold on to, and Azhar is a ball of energy who shows fear mixed with anticipation at what will happen to him next. 

This play, not for the faint hearted, helps us to take a step back from our routine and ask ourselves what actually brings us joy, what makes us larger than ourselves and how we can create even the smallest artistic magic for ourselves. This is a bold play about a number of taboo issues that many of us do not often get to face.

Review by Sophie Tergeist

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: B13 | Price of Ticket: £22
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