Every now and again I get a salutary reminder that theatre has taken a global battering over the last couple of years and that reinvention of the form has been far more than just a UK based issue. A couple of weeks ago I had a vey nice email from Alan Corbishley the Artistic Director of Sound the Alarm in Vancouver. It’s a city I’ve enjoyed on both my visits there, so it my interest was immediately kindled in their latest project called Theatre For The Ears. As can probably be guessed from the umbrella title, this is a series of four short audio dramas released monthly (November – February). They focus on various “alarms” to do with personal, societal and environmental changes and challenges which face us in the current circumstances. Each piece of drama is joined by follow up audio conversations in subsequent weeks and with a range of supportive resources. The first two plays certainly focus on some big issues.
First up is Starman written by Pippa Mackie which both starts and ends with the sounds of crunching as something is consumed – this proves to be absolutely central to the narrative. Conceived ahead of the pandemic, this essentially monologue play finds its moment as a tale of a forty something with multiple issues who decides to lock down in an apartment, a choice which has, since, been the fate of many of us. However, although this protagonist does so voluntarily, it’s not long before the desire to communicate asserts itself even if the traffic is mostly one way. So, the prosaically named Daryl Smith takes on the alter ego of Starman and sets about podcasting to anyone who will listen. Evidently this is not many and small audiences dwindle away to nothing leaving the only point of contact the pizza delivery service. The original intention of the podcast, to broadcast thoughts and feelings “in the raw” (as in unedited and unfiltered, not naked), is all but entirely negated and what once was a seemingly gregarious personality starts to fracture under the relentless pressure of loneliness, abandonment and self-recrimination – not to mention a dose of some hallucinogenic ‘shrooms. I don’t know whether it is intentional (or I’ve just been led that way by the title) but several times I found myself recalling the latter half of Kubrick’s 2001; A Space Odyssey and its themes of abandonment and being cut adrift.
The play covers over 200 days of Daryl/Starman’s self-imposed exile and as the protagonist morphs into a different character(s) entirely, so too the writing comes to inhabit an increasingly darker space. Mackie handles this transition with assurance showing the volatile highs and depressive lows of such a situation with economy and wit. This is aided by a first class performance of a splintering ego from Kayvon Khoshkam. Initially the character comes across as completely annoying but by the end one would have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise as they go deeper and deeper inside themself.
The second play embraces a much wider geographical landscape being largely set at sea as the central figure journeys from Hong Kong to Vancouver. The Eternal Sailor is by Derek Chan and takes as its starting point the recent political situation in Hong Kong. Jacy and Alexis attend a protest rally. The former is concussed and hospitalised in a coma; the latter returns home to Vancouver. When Jacy finally awakes the world has turned upside down – literally as the Poles have shifted after severe environmental damage. There’s also a killer algae costing humans their lives. The plot develops in monologues which switch back and forth between actors Nao Uemura and P. Trinh.
Although I didn’t find this piece as engaging as the first it still has much to recommend it. The actors are fine, the soundscape created by Stefan Smulovitz makes the whole thing immersive and it is directed with economy by Lok Yu. I think the difficulty is that there is simply too much going on for the time the play runs which means that neither the political or environmental concerns get fully enough developed. The listener is also processing a love story set against cataclysmic events in a future dystopia and playing spot the reference (The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and Kevin Costner’s Waterworld to name but two). And I’m afraid that having seen one stupendous adaptation of a Canadian author’s story of a person adrift in a small boat at sea recently (Life Of Pi), this was never going to reach the same standard. A Bengal tiger is, ultimately, a much more thrilling travelling companion than a pesky mosquito.
This is a fine start to this project and I’ll be back for more when further episodes are released next year. Unwittingly on the part of Sound The Alarm, these first two plays have found me identifying with the protagonists. In the second it was serendipity that the main character’s name echoes my own initials. And as for the first, like Daryl/Starman I started this pandemic with my own lockdown challenge; this was to review at least one new online show every day. Therefore, I found the whole thing fascinatingly relatable though, fortunately, I don’t think I’ve suffered the same fate (who can tell?). However, 600+ days in I do occasionally find myself wondering, like Daryl, whether there is anybody out there reading these random scribblings!