By Scott Hurley
As we draw to the end of this series on the shows of our university’s Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance students it seems fitting that I’ve ended where I started, in the Black Box Studio. This time I’m here to see believe, “a trio of documentary plays investigating our post-truth world.” The verbatim theatre project, of which I believe this is the last as the course changes next year, has always been a slightly strange brief for the students to follow. Second years who have previously relied on the Drama Barn for their theatrical sustenance are finally permitted to stage a public performance at TFTV- the catch is it must fit a political theme, and the dialogue must be a matter of public record.
The first of these shows is Square One, and as I enter the Black Box I must admit I’m a touch disappointed. Verbatim shows have always existed on a smaller budget but the gaffer tape grid and stock truck sheets hardly set the imagination on fire. Square One is the show of the three that reminds me most of verbatims of yesteryear, the fudged technical timings, the mandatory scene where characters with received pronunciation drink tea while those without wear hoodies and smoke cigarettes, and the poorly recorded voice overs crescendoing to an unintentionally distorted conclusion. The show starts by questioning which media outlets we can really trust and which, if any, are truly bipartisan. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t seem to be interested in progressing anywhere from there and we’re taken through a slightly disjointed set of scenarios, featuring a particularly inexplicable Tetris reference, which lack a focus or direction which would have led us on a more intriguing journey.
After a brief interval we return to the Black Box to see Planet B. Newspaper clad chairs, another staple of the verbatim project, and a rubbish heap await us. There’s a rather pleasing aesthetic to the design of this global warming oriented project and although I’m not sure why all of it looks the way it does there’s something far more engrossing about Planet B. The opening impressions were genuinely amusing and, although the play also didn’t really investigate scientific disbelief in a particularly original way, it joins the ranks of Square One in being perfectly watchable.
Ushered away once more, we finally return to Mr. Saxon’s Excellently English Evening of Entertainment. It’s a cabaret show and the lucky early birds in the theatre are sat on tables on stage and I envy them from my raked seat at the back. It’s really nice to see something different from the usual verbatim shows and the design, performance styles and songs click together in a way which allows for a highly entertaining half hour. From Mr. Saxon himself, who thrusts a beer into your hand upon arrival, to Michael Gove (who here seems represented as a strange mix of Igor and Pepe The Frog) the cast and design team bring a frivolity to the whole affair which I feel is strongly in the spirit of what this kind of verbatim project should bring.
The verbatim project always strikes me as an invitation to fail and I will never forget my own embarrassing misadventure on the verbatim stage. These plays, however, are a highly watchable, if somewhat disjointed, selection of shows which work hard to strike a note somewhere between a politically charged lecture and a variety show of theatrical technique. As always they bring debate during and after the shows, although the idea of “post-truth” is never really unpacked by any of the performances, and I am convinced the cast and crews of all three are to go on to do great work as they face their full length show next year.