DTF review | Newcastlewest: A world without consequence that refuses to make sense

Through chance operations and onstage manipulation, Dick Walsh’s new play for Pan Pan makes random sense of the world

Newcastlewest. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

Newcastlewest. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

 

Newcastlewest

Smock Alley Theatre

****

 

“The normal thing is just not going to work for me, you know?” So says Marya, a young woman wondering what to do with her long-stalled life in Dick Walsh’s intriguing new play for Pan Pan.

In Annabell Rickerby’s fascinating performance, an artful display of artlessness, Marya need not be especially worried about normality. A figure in leopard-skin leggings and an elaborate leg-brace, she shares a house with her cantankerous, invasive father (Des Nealon) in an isolated part of the country, praying to her dead mother, taking advice from a sullen but sanguine friend (Una McKevitt).

In Pan Pan’s staging, familiar things are made less ordinary: the cast stand face-front on a shallow stage against Aedín Cosgrove’s blank red wall, squinting suspiciously into the audience. Sometimes Marya is physically assisted by one of two onstage attendants in red smocks, who manipulate her like a puppet. Often she stretches her markedly banal dialogue into the shape of a song, with the assistance of emulated guitar strums on an iPhone. It is all determinedly random, and oddly enhanced.

Walsh’s heroine, loosely inspired by Tolstoy’s Princess Marya Bolkonskaya, a woman of self-denying duty to her father and her religion, is a prisoner of more contemporary anxieties. Will she go back to college to pursue social studies and leave her ailing father to perish? Does the arrival of Doug (Dick Walsh), a local lad with a cushy and influential job in Brussels, spell the promise of a better life elsewhere?

The performance style pursued here by director Gavin Quinn – more animated than the studied deadpan of US theatre maker Richard Maxwell, although indebted to some of his techniques – is both jarring and absorbing. Conversation meanders and staggers, and disturbing moments pass without reaction. In this world without consequence, everyday textures feel just as unsettling, as McKevitt’s Katie mathematically itemises her romantic history, Nealon advises his daughter on CV padding, dressing sexy and lying for the sake of a company, while Walsh’s comically beatific Doug rhapsodises the impersonal connections of computers and Tinder.

“What’s the meaning of it all if everything is just random shit?” asks Marya. The play and the production seem to correspond with her predicament, guided in their construction by chance operations and execution by onstage manipulators. Yet even the most outré moments, such as Marya’s infectious Berimbau recital, are teasingly accessible.

What shape is an artist supposed to create, Walsh seems to ask, when it’s the world that refuses to make sense?

Until October 4th

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