Carla patiently waits the return of her vulnerable, mentally disabled ward, Helver, from Fascist riots.
Walking through skeins of smoke, sporting a green military beret handed to me on entry, I find myself part of another world: a shabby kitchen where Carla patiently awaits the return of her vulnerable, mentally disabled ward, Helver, from Fascist riots. Helver is not yet a victim of the violence, but a partaker, and as he commandingly teaches Carla the ways of his new-found ‘friends’, she begins to question her reasons for adopting Helver, and is forced to assess their future and past together.
The play explores how the political inevitably contaminates the personal, as Helver’s condition only becomes a pressing issue when coupled with the prospect of an imminent Fascist backlash. This therefore makes for an extremely tense, fast-paced production, which at times had me wincing with anticipation.
Initially, due to the apparent violence in Helver’s behaviour with Carla, when teaching her a drill at the beginning of the play, I thought its message was about the dangers of Fascist ideology’s corrupting influence on the vulnerable, due to his appreciation of the theatrical and routine nature of their acts. As the play moves on, however, the audience are taken on a tragic course for both characters, as we learn about Carla’s forsaken marriage and abandoned child, which led to her taking-in of Helver from a mental institute, and we apprehensively wait for Fascist militia to enter the safe domestic sphere which Carla has so lovingly created for them both. Helver’s unconscious euthanasia – by being tricked into overdosing on his own medication – is Carla’s final act of kindness, allowing him to die contented before being killed by the people with whom he had allied himself, in a heartbreaking moment of twisted moralities and fatalism.
In terms of the play’s production, there is very little at fault here. The cast’s performances were gripping and carried the full 84 minutes, despite being in one room together on stage for most of the show. Adam Venus’ Helver was convincing and subtle, yet frightening; Kate Lynn Evans’ Carla loving and sorrowful. Certain moments felt a little ‘am-dram’, as stage fighting did not work too well, and when Carla’s hauntingly reflective solitary waltz morphed into what I thought was interpretative dance, I’m afraid I rolled my eyes.
The use of backstage runners banging on doors and screaming to create the sensation of rioters outside the flat was incredibly effective
The use of backstage runners banging on doors and screaming to create the sensation of rioters outside the flat was incredibly effective, building on the play’s tense and charged atmosphere. Small directional and design touches like paintings falling down, Carla frantically putting on and taking off her coat, and being covered with dust from a ‘bomb’ that hit, gave colour to what could have been a very clinical play. Hal Chambers and Zoe Squire’s vision added a disturbing realism to an otherwise deliberately a-contextual setting.
Helver’s Night – showing at York theatre royal until the 8th November – is a painful play that explores attitudes to mental illness in the personal and political world, which left me welling up due to the moving cast performances and water-tight quality of Villqist’s script.