THE MESSAGE
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds/touring
Opened 17 February, 1997

The Swansea-based Volcano Theatre company combine their associations with director Nigel Charnock and poet Tony Harrison with their predilection for deconstructing texts in this 75-minute piece, which takes Harrison's version of the Oresteia as the starting point for an exploration of "The Messenger as witness and living testimony to events", apparently.

The thing about Volcano, with their trademark intense physicality and their love of cutting and pasting words together from disparate sources (even, if I am not mistaken, speaking them backwards at a couple of points here), is that the more directly they tackle a subject, the less they seem either to entertain or to engage one's thoughts and emotions. 1995's How To Live put the relationships at the core of several Ibsen plays through the blender to simultaneously hilarious and terrifying effect; the previous year they meted similar treatment out to The Communist Manifesto with barely less success. The Message, however, is a disappointing hotch-potch.

The script mixes Harrison's lines (one had forgotten quite how often he used the term "blood-grudge") with material from Primo Levi, Hamlet and Macbeth, war correspondent Fergal Keane's Letter To Daniel and other stuff including what seem to be quasi-personal recollections and plain gibberish. The four performers fling themselves around the stage (or rather, three of them do June Broughton is a little too old and dignified for real pell-mell action), roam through the auditorium with glove puppets (leading to an "Emu moment" as Fern Smith's puppet and I wrestled for possession of my notepad) and finally daub themselves in gore, but to little coherent result. The barking humour which often pervades their shows and serves to highlight their serious points is here much more tentative, as if they feel less at ease in switching between accounts of Nazi and Bosnian atrocities and comic mania.

One of Volcano's greatest strengths has been their repeated proof that in order to take a subject seriously one does not need to be remorselessly earnest. On this occasion, they seem to feel that much of their material compels a somewhat greater (although still not absolute) reverence, and have unwittingly allowed this caution to pen them into creating what is just another big-issue physical theatre piece.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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