The Riverside's new Studio 3 space gets rid of its predecessor's problem for performers of a broad, shallow stage playing sort-of on three sides, replacing it with a smaller version of the end-on space offered by its two larger sisters; it also gets rid of the plastic-cup seating and minuscule leg room which made the old Studio 3 London's most uncomfortable theatre venue. Its opening production, too, is more intriguing than anything I had seen in the old space in many months.
Crossing (1994) is the UK première of one part of a dramatic triptych by Afrikaner Reza de Wet. It takes place at some unspecified time a century or so ago, in a house kept by twin sisters near a river ford; they feel a sacred duty to warn travellers of the dangers of crossing the river in spate, and not only to bury those who do not heed their admonitions but to give those departed spirits rest by using mediumship to determine the names they should put on the grave markers. The process of dealing with a particularly stubborn shade leads to a flashback in which a travelling hypnotist and his drudge assistant stop at the house on their way to con the nearby gold and diamond prospectors. All this information trickles out; de Wet prefers gradual evocation, and is too skilled to slap it all down in a mighty whoops-exposition dollop.
The first few minutes of this hour and a quarter feel rather like an Afrikaner version of Chekhov mixed with Beckett's Endgame, but as matters proceed we move into the territory of, say, Bergman's Fanny And Alexander; this is a world in which ghosts are not inherently strange or Other, they are simply part of the fabric of the characters' lives. We are also shown competing versions of alternatives to material reality: the plain duty of Hermien's spiritualistic obligation and her stifling of hunchbacked sister Sussie vie with Maestro's hypnotic hucksterism of the imagination and the illusion of liberation he offers Sussie to unfold the wings he says are contained within her hump. It is a Miltonic conflict: we always know which side is right, but its shortcomings are laid bare by an opponent both plainly wicked and nevertheless alluring.
New company Cassandra, led by Vanessa Mildenberg and Clare Bloomer (who play Hermien and Sussie respectively) are florid in the aims and claims included in the play's programme; much better to let the unfussy accomplishment of their inaugural production speak for itself.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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