First, we had The Odyssey, directed by Brie Page (all of the plays use titles from famous novels or plays). There was some clever use of video to show the unnamed Dictator (Ed Gamble), unafraid to tell the soldiers (Invi Brenna, Jordan Craig and Elena Dobby) that he has committed evil acts and welcomes punishment. It added another dimension to the simple staging of the rest of the action. The standout amongst the soldiers was Elena Dobby, talking poignantly of her desire to return home to her son and the effect of years spent fighting in a seemingly endless war. Despite countries and people being unnamed, the resonances with Iraq were clear.
Paradise Regained, directed by Fetin Sardaneh, is an interesting contrast. Instead of a current war, we have a war from twenty years ago. Wealthy middle-aged Matt (Joe Bennett) has buried all thoughts of it but the entrance of Tom (Francis Murphy-Thomas), his partner that was killed in the war, provokes interesting questions about the extent to which we cling (or should cling) to the past. Matt's new lover, immature student Adam (Jack Lock) belongs to the new generation, taunting Matt for living in the past. Lock adds a great dynamic, undermining the sincerity of Tom and Matt by camply flaunting himself as a welcome distraction from all that serious talk. Though the actors are roughly the same age, Sardaneh convinces the audience that these are characters from completely different generations.
Ravenhill is at his strongest when writing domestic dramas and individual characters. The Mikado (directed by Rhys Hobday) is a lovely piece. The set consists of a park bench, with pebbles to indicate that they are in a Japanese garden. Alan (Benjamin Gregory-Ring) and Peter (Jack Lock, in his second appearance of the evening) are a bourgeouis couple, forever adding to and developing their beautiful garden. But this is only a distraction from the harsh truth that tests Alan's loyalty. With only the actor's acting abilities, Hobday creates a lovely intimate piece. Subtle details such as the way that Alan touches Peter's leg or how without Alan's physical presence Peter will self-destruct really help to make the piece incredibly moving. Gregory-Ring and Lock, playing another gay character but one in contrast to the previous piece, give excellent unrestrained performances.
Director Paul Ainsworth uses perhaps the greatest variety of theatre elements, as Women of Troy relies on costume, make-up, set, lights and sound to create an interactive piece. A chorus of twelve women, dressed as perfect housewives but wearing sinister marks that make the eyes and mouth hollow, plead with the audience to sympathise with their plight. Despite being 'good people', they will be bombed. Dealing with a cast of thirteen, twelve of which often speak in complete harmony, must have been a daunting task but the twelve women seem to share an incredibly strong bond. It's definitely a piece that can't be ignored as the audience are trapped by these sinister women, obsessed with the idea of domestic perfection and outraged that this will not save them from the bombs. The masks are incredibly effective, separating the actors entirely from the audience so we really do see them as 'the Other'.
At the mid-way point, we had Ellen Lock Ireland's version of Yesterday An Incident Occured. It was a seemingly impromptu piece in the foyer on our way to the Aphra theatre, the easiest location to sneak away from and yet the opposite happened: the audience drew closer until it was a crowd. Jack Lock (final performance of the evening!), Juno Gurung and Rafael Lima play a bunch of theatre people, urging the audience to come forward with information about an attack on one of their actors. Suddenly events progress and we find ourselves in the middle of a dystopia, with the three gleefully relaying the development of a Bill that will legalise torture and branding and keeping an eye out for the 'rotten egg' that carried out the attack. Their chosen victim (Tiago Luzio) gives a speech that signals the end of democracy and the start of a world under surveillance. Lock Ireland emphasises the theatre element- the characters are theatrical people who will try any trick, including enacting endearing images such as an ordinary couple on an ordinary bench (Ravenhill loves his benches!)- and succeeds in staging a play outside of a theatre space. Good performances all round but I particularly enjoyed Gurung's heartless capitalism and the raw passions of Lima (the actor's lover) and Maria Cassar as the actor's wife, desparate for justice.
Fear and Misery (directed by Helena Bumpus) certainly delivers on those promises. A couple (Benjamin Ridge and Eleanor Hicks) cradle a baby monitor, paranoid about the safety and serenity of their baby. But this paranoia about safety, serenity and security becomes a neurotic meditation on the brutalities of war, the gypsy camp in the neighbourhood and the crack house that has recently been busted. It's an interesting extension, starting with the concerns about the baby's security and growing to wider panics about society's security. Bumpus makes nice use of lighting, as the couple's shadows are magnified against the wall, and she directs some very dark material very bravely.
Unlike any of the other plays, The Mother (directed by Ashley Hardman) is a vehicle for one actress. The supporting roles are well acted but it is Katie Cadwallader's portrayal of Mrs Morrison, who lives off benefits, breakfast rolls and trashy TV, that stands out. Hardman has a real talent in directing comedy- making the play the first comedy of the evening and guaranteeing audience laughter- but he also brings out the tragedy behind the comedy, as Mrs Morrison is given the worst news that a mother can get.
A headless soldier sits next to Mrs Morrison and the character recurs in War and Peace, Tom Dillon-McEvoy's piece. I found the text a little artificial, with the Brechtian cliche of characters referring to themselves in the third person, but Dillon-McEvoy at least gets some humour out of it. Alex (Richard Light) is an adorable seven year old with odious capitalist brainwashing. He has a recurring dream in which a working class soldier (Benjamin Gregory-Ring, with Jonathan Miller as the 'head') breaks into his bedroom and tries to steal his head. Initially the two components of the headless soldier (the body and disembodied voice) are distracting but Dillon-McEvoy creates a strong bond between the two. Miller talks how Gregory-Ring walks and Gregory-Ring walks how Miller talks. It's ostensibly about War but also seems to be a clear class war.
Finally, the second version of Yesterday An Incident Occured, with Danyal Ince directing. An actress is just getting into her stride performing a monologue in The Crucible where she is interrupted by three corporate politician types (Mark Curly, Elle-Louise Payne and Ben Langley) who proceed to interrogate and mock the audience. It's a completely different take from the first version; this time it's done as absurdist theatre, like sixties European drama. The chaos and comedy mean that the audience are at a complete loss as to the narrative; whereas Lock-Ireland focuses on the truth of the narrative, these characters manipulate the narrative to their advantage, creating characters such as Marion the poor wife in order to push their mad right-wing views. It certainly got the most laughs of the night and had some creepy moments such as when a camera turned on the audience and Langley's shamless harrassment of any audience member he selected. Though the other two actors are very good, his excellent audience interaction stole the show.
Though Ravenhill does recycle a lot of elements in these plays, the directors all find ways to make the plays feel like separate pieces.