Thursday, 11 April 2013

Review: Cannibals

Written by Rory Mullarkey, directed by Michael Longhurst, currently showing between the 3rd and 27th April 2013 at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre
Photograph: Jonathan Keenan, for The Guardian
Cannibals is a play that shows, behind a very well-executed exterior, a troubling inexperience. It is a play that rather unfortunately leaves many ideas painfully undevelopped, and the main point of the play gets lost towards the end. What makes this rather tragic for me is that I rather enjoyed the Royal Exchange Theatre production, and I feel that the main thrust of the play was quite subtle and nuanced. It was the advertised content of the play, what amounted to a last-minute subplot, that left me wondering what it was all about.
     The story followed Lizaveta (Ony Uhiara), a woman from an unspecified ex-Soviet state whose life is drawn into tragedy when her husband is killed by a local milita and she is forced to escape to a local village, where there are tales of suffering and loss as well as rumours of cannibalism. Later, Lizaveta is swept from her last comfortable surroundings and sold to a wealthy Manccunian man as a mail-order bride. The play was sold on that last line, and it's a shame because that only really takes up the last ten minutes, the narrative climax coming rather earlier when a spotless monologue by Uhiara basically dredged through her painful life story. As such, it felt tacked on an unnecessary.
     Not a difficult thing on its own, but for the amount of effort that went into this final, almost denoument-like segment of the production. Not only were the themes and ideas presented at odds with those in the rest of the play, there were several clever techniques that actually worked pretty well. One such technique was the representation of Lisaveta's confusion at her surroundings through a lanugage-switch, having all English be Russian and so forth. I wanted this part of the play to be more developed, but it just seems to end on a narrative note that references the play's beginning but has little to say in regards to change.
     One could argue from an artistic perspective that the nature of that segment of the play was deliberate; like Lizaveta, we have been robbed from our comfortable surroundings and the future for our characters is unclear. The problem comes with the pacing - had there been ten more minutes or so spent on that part of the plot, it would feel more like a tragic final act than an add-on that robbed time away from the other developing subplots. One such subplot refered to the history of cannibalism in the village, and while it was adressed admirably through some implicit dialogue, the confrontation that was needed never arrived.
     There was nothing wrong in any of the play's execution - the direction was top-notch, and exploited the theatre to full effect. The troupe was on top-form and I found Uhiara's performance especially commendable, spending the entire 105 minutes on-stage. It's a blessing of the Exchange that the quality of their physical production can elevate any script, and I really did enjoy myself. I would go and see it; I haven't spoilt too much, and I think it's for the viewer to really decide whether the issues that the play presents in the eleventh hour gel with the rest of the play's more developped themes or otherwise.


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