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‘Feels like a statement of intent’: CRAVE – Chichester Festival Theatre

Chichester Festival Theatre – until 7 November 2020 (but likely to close on 4 November)

And it was all going so well. Theatres were just starting to reopen and finding ways to reconnect with culture-starved audiences using a hybrid model of live performance and digital streaming when the announcement of a second lockdown is sure to heap further misery on a industry already ravaged by months of closure. This will make Sarah Kane’s Crave, which launched Chichester Festival Theatre’s first indoor season since the spring, one of the last new productions to premiere before a further month-long closure. With a likely run of just six of its ten performances, Crave will join a litany of shows that the virus stopped short.

The Playhouse Theatre in London still bears advertisements for The Seagull, a Jamie Lloyd production that never made it to press night and perhaps has scant chance of reuniting its original cast. Across the river, the National Theatre reopened just shy of two weeks ago and its planned press night for The Death of England: Delroy scheduled for Thursday is unable to proceed as planned. New show or not, most West End theatres were mothballed in March with their frontages frozen in time. Walk past the Duke of York’s and Noel Coward on St Martin’s Lane today and you will still see their posters for Blithe Spirit and Dear Evan Hansen (which should return eventually), while the the Wyndham’s on Charing Cross Road still bears its banners for Leopoldstadt that should have finished long ago.

It is by no means certain that those theatres that have or planned to open will automatically resume once more on 2 December if rehearsals are unable to proceed under the new restrictions and the running costs of the closed venues as well as refunding tickets sales for November prove prohibitive. So this brief period of resumption is all the more significant and for those who manage to see Crave before its final performance (likely to be on Wednesday) will have experienced one of the most challenging and unusual pieces revived so far, a play that (appropriate for its immediate future) already has a haunting quality.

A four-person experience which can be performed with on-stage social distancing, ask anyone what exactly Crave is about and they would not be able to tell you. It is a mass of stories, lines and experiences that change shape across its 50-minute runtime, a series of impressions that flit between internal and external monologue, direct dialogue and maybe even dream sequences that gives a collective impression of the pain caused by emotional connections to people, and the burden of enduring life both in isolation and in relation to others.

It is a poetic piece, more to be experienced than understood perhaps, one that revels in its ambiguity ascribing neither names nor gender to its speakers – they can barely be called characters – while using language that is emphatic about or descriptive of suffering. Crave has strands of conversation that seem to overlap or answer one another and part of the puzzle of this play is working out whether any of the speakers are directly addressing one another either immediately or several lines later, or in fact if the cast referred to only as A, B, C and M are consistently given lines from the same disjointed story or perform several different roles to create the overall effect.

And little of it makes for easy viewing. The controversy of Kane’s work has largely focused on the explicitly violent nature of her plays and while Crave is gentler than her earlier writing, there are repeated references to brutality, perversity and forms of sexual exploitation that puncture the air. That it is dressed in and surrounded by more intricate concepts of personal torment expressed in this poetic form does not detract from the difficult subject of victims and perpetrators that fills her work as people pursue unsavoury and unhealthy forms of love.

With no stage directions and few clues to era and place within the text, director Tinuke Craig places the cast side by side on parallel treadmills that slowly pulls each of them towards the back of the stage and which they must fight against to be heard. The association with Kane’s theme on the struggles for life and love are clear, and the speakers must walk forward to claim the attention of the audience and some kind of space for their dialogue within the show. Craig keeps the pace of the machines fairly slow, thereby reducing the mechanical noise, giving the actors time to sit, crouch or stand as their role demands.

It is an approach that also heralds the different chapters within Crave, allowing Craig to build to more intense moments of crescendo as the pace quickens. There are no scenes or breaks indicated in the text apart from some lengthier monologues for A, so the company is free to interpret as they chose. And here Craig gives us two significant peaks of tension before the eventual conclusion, using a building delivery speed and physical positioning of the actors across the staging to convey the differing rhythms and tones in Kane’s dialogue as the speakers confront the past, their identities, mistakes and themselves in some kind of quest for truth and self-understanding.

One way of doing this is placing the actors at different heights and points on their treadmills as each fulfills what seems to be an individual journey through Kane’s plotless approach. But Craig also utilises live feed video projection from four cameras placed at the front of each treadmill as well as pre-recorded head and shoulder images of the solo cast members in varying exposures of black and white. Craig and video designer Ravi Deepres overlap this footage across the large rear wall of the stage, creating a smoke like effect and the impression of individual faces overlaying one another in a visual representation of the play’s complex linguistic structure.

For viewers watching at home, this becomes even more affecting in a production where the streamed experience has been given as much thought as the impression of those in the room. When these layered video effects are employed they also create ghostly forms on screen as the multiple images projected are intermingled with shots from the stage giving an impression via the stream of spectre-like figures reflected and refracted through a kaleidoscope. Used only in the few moments of extreme intensity in the play, the hall of mirrors effect underscores the interior pressures the speakers feel and the distorting effect of their experiences on their concepts of self identity.

The online viewer is offered shots from multiple angles with several cameras placed around the auditorium to give close-ups, full-stage shots and perspectives from around the apron stage to vary the visual experience of the play – particularly effective when the actors are placed in a perfect diagonal line across their treadmills. Craig also makes one significant use of the stage revolve to turn the four treadmills, their occupants and their lives in one unhurried rotation that adds to the building disorientation for the four speakers, which the live feed also captures from several angles to create a similar dizzying effect.

This is a difficult play for the performers who have clearly spent a great deal of time unpicking Kane’s work and trying to create four distinct but amorphous subjects whose collective and individual experiences must create the same degree of resonance. Arguable, Jonathan Slinger as A has the most complex of these, certainly in terms of the length of his role, which includes several extensive monologues with some of the darkest subject matter. The longest of these runs for several minutes about the day-to-day intricacies of a relationship.

Slinger has a world-weary approach to A, delivering one liners like ‘I am not a rapist’ and ‘I am pedophile’ as matter-of-fact statements that hang unresolved in the air, before delivering this extraordinary central speech with a building passion as A describes all the ways he loves and experiences his partner, the ups and downs of their long affair as well as the underlying anxieties they both experience. Without punctuation, on the page it speeds up in your head as you read it and Slinger exactly captures the breathless pace of it, the precise rhythm of Kane’s writing that is both overwhelming and almost tender in its expression of feeling.

Other speakers are given very different roles in the play and depending on the interpretation, whether the show is built around one individual or all of them equally will vary the effect. In Craig’s version it is C played by Erin Doherty that seems to be the focus, the intensity of her pain grounding the production as she grapples with her past while allowing the other stories to circumnavigate her experience even when not directly engaging with or referencing her narrative.

Of all the speakers, C appears to be in agony, Doherty often closer to the back of the stage, scrunched up as fragments of past remembrances return to her. At the end of A’s lengthy speech, C delivers a pulsating chant of ‘this has to stop’ which builds in volume while she tries to understand what she is grieving for. Doherty exudes that despair well as notions of childhood suffering and repressed memories of what may be abuse resurface in patchy recollections that affect her ability to process the here and now.

Played by Wendy Kweh, M has a more muted entry into the play at first (at least by Kane’s standards), a lost lover, a possible pregnancy and a confusion about who she is. Repeatedly she says in what seem to be answers to B’s statements that she is not a mother and not an older woman, but soon there is a short speech about an appropriated memory of childhood, someone else’s story that M has acquired and Kweh offers-up an impression of time slippage and uncertainty about the sequence of events, as though in a repetitive loop.

Finally, B played by Alfred Enoch is the least knowable of the set who seems to live for experiential pleasures of drugs, sex and alcohol, a physical neediness that runs through the early part of the play. There is a distance in this speaker that never really gets beyond the surface gratification although Enoch, in keeping with the other performances, also makes B matter-of-fact rather than lustful, and his lines more than any other seem to exist on their own, as though you could put them all together to form one coherent speech directed at an unseen other.

Crave was only slated to run until 7th so early closure will affect the final few performances and while the venue may not be able to just spring back to life on 2 December, the decision to stage this play as one of the first productions after its long hiatus feels like a statement of intent for a theatre that has long been a feeder institution for the West End. A challenging watch with added enhancement for its online audience, a Sarah Kane play is by no means a safe option for any theatre looking to attract audiences back to its auditorium, but this bold and intriguing production was worth the risk. During the extended spring and summer closure, there were fears that most playhouses would return with conservative audience favourites, but instead have given us combinations of new work, new staging methods and new models of engagement from arts venues around the country. Who knows whether we’ll sit in a theatre again this year but the last two months give us hope that theatre in 2021 might dare to be different.

Crave is scheduled to run at Chichester Festival Theatre until 7 November but will likely close on 4 November. In-house and live stream tickets are available for every performance from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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