A review of The Permanent Way by Lauren Noble
Verbatim theatre has always fascinated me. My proclivity towards words which undertake that arduous journey from page to stage is obviously a very large part of that fascination and yet, as I sit here contemplating my recent experience from the audience, I wonder if it might not be something more. When done successfully, I believe that verbatim theatre supports us as human beings to connect (or indeed reconnect) with those parts of ourselves that we share with other members of the human race. It's almost as if we have all been afforded the rare opportunity to experience two uninterrupted hours with the elusive Time Stone of the Marvel Multiverse... and though this one might behave a little differently, it is no less powerful than the one sought by Earth's Mightiest Heroes! Manifesting in its theatrical form, this particular Time Stone harnessed the power to reach into the archives of history to recover the consciousness of a group of individuals from many years ago and carefully bring them back to life through the skill of each performer on stage. It is a unique power that literally repositions an audience to hear about a series of life-altering moments so that we too may experience what it was like to live through these realities. The Permanent Way by David Hare is one such example of verbatim theatre which has the capacity to make use of its own type of Time Stone, transporting us back to the repercussions of the rail crashes of Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield, and Potters Bar.
Let me start by saying that Catherine Broad's directorial debut for Dubai Drama Group was easily one of the most complex plays I have watched since moving to Dubai five years ago. Upon reflection, I realise that this is not only because of the deeply harrowing subject matter but also due to an acting style which employed an extensive reliance on pinpoint and pitch-perfect timing in all its forms and at all times. Finding that balance between the welcome interjections of humour and humanity juxtaposed with the highly emotive retellings of the railway tragedies and the repercussions thereof was difficult, and this cast did a mindful job in holding our attention and sustaining their own energy reserves until the curtain closed behind them after their final scene.
What was most intriguing about The Permanent Way, perhaps, was the burden of developmental characterisation which had to occur very quickly due to the barrage of perspectives throughout the play and often quite bereft of other characters with which to interact. Most sequences operated as extended monologues which would occur in the style of the traditional standalone piece but also had the capacity to transform into spliced dialogue (which may or may not relate directly to one another) or larger group pieces, where various component parts had to establish a dynamic rapport within every beat to truly make an impact. If that is not a comment on the level of demand placed on the entire ensemble, then I don't know what is! I'm exhausted just thinking about it, let alone making it happen for two hours straight in every dress rehearsal and performance for a whole week. Sjoe!
Of course, related to the scarcity of the usual type of scene partner it became absolutely mesmerizing to observe the ways in which each performer navigated what could easily become a dip in energy due to the lack of conventional chemistry on stage. Special mention must go to the characters of the bereaved mother, played by Gwen Watson, and the policeman, played by Steven Wyatt, who both counteracted the need for a catalyst by consciously using the audience to boomerang a degree of energy back onto the stage for them to pick up and work with. It was a skillful manoeuvre and one I thoroughly enjoyed watching in action every time they took centrestage.
The scene with the bereaved father, played by Ciarán Ó Maoilchiaráin, alongside Watson and Wyatt was one that sparked a strong emotion in me. The anchoring authority of the policeman was as much about Wyatt's steady stage presence as it was about the type of ethical character he represented in that moment. Add that to an extremely realistic portrayal of the burden which befalls those who experience the tragedy of losing a child and you get a sequence which worked extremely well on stage. For me, it was all about those little details shared between Watson and Ó Maoilchiaráin who have a natural rapport together - something bound to happen to two individuals who also appear to be playing a husband and wife in Danú Dubai's summer offering Woman and Scarecrow which debuts in the UAE this month. Those married couple spats which are almost forced into submission because of the bigger cloud looming large above your head. Those unspoken traits of toxic masculinity which so often permit the tears of everyone except the men of the family unit. Those instances of moral outrage as depicted so eloquently by Steven Wyatt as his character struggles to understand his place within a system that was meant to help people like this bereaved couple and yet somehow fell hopelessly short. A difficult set of themes which was handled very well by all who shared the stage during this sequence.
I was positioned in the middle of the second row of just four rows on either side of a single-tier traverse stage in Warehouse Four. The venue itself has not been designed as a theatrical space but the catwalk configuration was an interesting way to ensure a sense of intimacy - an integral component to a play like The Permanent Way because it is intimacy which is a necessity in order to amplify our feeling of connection to a play staged in Dubai that is all about the British railways. From a design perspective, it was a simple yet effective aesthetic link to the train platform which begins the narrative action. I thoroughly enjoyed the opening sequence which introduced us to various, disparate characters and viewpoints as they sat on a platform awaiting a delayed train. It was a wonderful sense of foreshadowing, giving us some idea of the volume of interviews that must have taken place to collate this many overlapping narratives. Sarah Potter's passenger character had three of us in the second row in absolute stitches within the first few minutes of the platform scene as she dropped expletive after expletive whilst her character also served to provide the audience with some very valuable insight into the opinions of the general public regarding these rail crashes.
"Why wouldn't they do the one thing that might put everything right? Because they might get a bad review in The Daily Mail. I mean, think about that. Just think about it. Please."
- Passenger 4, Opening Scene of The Permanent Way
Now, I must admit that even as a South African who knows her fair share of British history, the first fifteen minutes of the play was a lot to absorb about the railways, and politics, and the politicians. This was slightly exacerbated by my missing a few lines of dialogue here and there, often due to the performers being in constant competition with the background noise of the warehouse itself and the fact that a traverse stage will always mean a performer will have their back to some part of the audience at any given moment. It was necessary to understand as much of this prologue sequence as possible to ensure the details were not lost later on during the course of the play so it became fifteen minutes of heightened audio-visual work for the audience to ensure we were not only hearing lines of dialogue but watching the physicality of these passenger characters too. It was a welcome break in tension as Jonathan H. Duff's character walks back onstage a short while later, breaking the fourth wall and claiming outright that no one really wants to engage in an entire play about rail crashes! I love a meta-moment in any production but this one made fantastic use of Duff's composure and reassuring vocality to settle the audience before jumping into the next set of informative sequences.
Bryan MacKenzie did a stand out job in commanding the stage space with his booming vocality... and in making the audience want to punch something whenever he donned the toupée of the Managing Director of Railtrack a while later! Watching this character dripping in disdain for the plight of the common folk, an errant thought flew through my mind and then stayed with me every time I observed "the suits" on stage. I suddenly wondered whether it was at all possible for a writer to collate material whilst maintaining a degree of distance from the proceedings?
Verbatim theatre, I feel, has an extremely important place in society; far too often, artistic license betrays historical accuracy in its quest for entertainment.
- Catherine Broad, Director of The Permanent Way
This is a profound statement by Broad which is made even more relevant in an age of heightened access to information, not all of it accurate. It also reiterates my feeling of apprehension when presented with the idea of sides - a concept that was revisited often within the play, most notably between the survivors and the bereaved but also between "the suits" and the people they serve or do business with. From the very beginning of the play there is a strong feeling that "the suits" are the villains or, at the very least, villainous in nature. This would play a role later in Act 2 as MacKenzie's Managing Director explains how it felt to be in his shoes and this did not elicit any measure of empathy in me as I sat in the audience. Was I supposed to feel that way? Was I being manipulated to suit an agenda? Whose agenda was it? Or was I manipulating myself to suit my own opinions? It was a fantastic moment of introspection and a reminder that it has become our duty to absorb new information with a degree of critical distance to ensure that we are vetting the content that we then take on board as "fact". The Permanent Way certainly encouraged me to disregard passivity and remain an active participant in my own journey through the play.
There were many stand out moments for me in The Permanent Way. Eric Dury in his red and green jacket, stating complexities so matter-of-factly and with such a strong sense of well-earned wisdom that you wondered how anyone could possibly disagree with him. The confident and charismatic James Mitchinson who was so boisterous in his approach to the different dialects and areas they represented in the British landscape that each of his characters was as defined as his accent was! The heart-wrenching moment that Sandra Spencer's character slowly turned to our side of the audience and spoke of the loss of her soulmate, her voice breaking ever so slightly. And then there was Bryn Mitchell's monologue. I was not prepared for how it felt to watch a young man contend with survivors' guilt to the point that he physically did not know what to do with himself. The scene takes place in a bar and the use of personal properties to heighten the emotional intensity was truly commendable. From the too-long swig of a beer after saying out aloud something so seemingly shameful for a lad's lad to admit, to the act of throwing and retrieving darts in what felt like a character stuck in that overwhelming swing of the pendulum without any hope of escaping his self-imposed cycle of guilt. What a scene!
The motif of that pendulum or cycle occurs throughout this play but the most impactful example happened just moments after Aileen Dowling transformed into another bereaved mother onstage. I literally could not take my eyes off of her during this entire scene. It felt as if something inside me broke a little bit as I watched her character circling the stage, speaking of the intricacies and horrors of bereavement. The ebb and flow of this monologue must have been very difficult to locate given how very unsettling the piece is in its entirety but Dowling established the emotional placement for every beat with pinpoint accuracy. In doing so she managed to support the audience to understand what happens inside the mind of those parents or grandparents who lose young folk in a cruel reversal of the natural timeline. The depths of her anguish resonated throughout Warehouse Four in different ways but it was her proximity to the motif which is revisited by Penny MacKenzie's unshakeable solicitor character that really got to me. In a sequence that would not be out of place in Waiting for Godot, she asks us for the third time before realising:
"What's it called, that film? Groundhog Day... That's it. Groundhog Day."
It would be remiss of anyone watching this play not to realise that the narrative involving the repetition of Groundhog Day is the entire reason David Hare's play is still relevant today. Even a play as specific as one which is set in the UK, all about the British railways and being performed for an international audience in Al Quoz in Dubai has the power to become a microcosm for the issues around human nature in the wider world. After all, The Permanent Way is just one more theatrical example which reminds us all that we are doomed to a history that repeats itself if choose not learn from our mistakes...
© Lauren Noble for Collab Company | 2021
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