If you don’t enjoy exploring ideas and stretching yourself when you’re young, when will you? And isn’t that half the point of being young? Only by challenging ourselves do we learn and grow. Such thoughts were provoked by this unusual and stimulating production, which is not always comfortable to watch or easy to understand fully. It is performed by the twenty-somethings of AUB who will soon be making their way through the practicalities of a theatrical career. Not only do they perform it but it was ‘devised by the company’, so one can imagine what a valuable, all-consuming experience it must have been for those taking part.
The programme notes pay tribute to Pablo Neruda and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and one can see traces of the former’s enthusiasm for surrealism and of the magic realism popularised by the latter. A nobleman’s daughter has been bitten by a rabid dog and in a desperate hunt for a cure, he tries conventional medicine and witchcraft before reluctantly taking the advice of the Bishop and giving her over to the nuns who run the Santa Clara lunatic asylum, the dog-bite being no more than an allegory for her mental afflictions. A priest allocated to her case falls in love with her and when she returns his love (in a very powerful scene in which they are both held in dog-catchers’ nooses and then released), it seems that redemption may be hers. But it is not to be.
Almost every member of the cast plays a part but also doubles up as an inmate of the asylum. These ensemble scenes are some of the most powerful, with good use made of angular attitudes and anguished sounds. The cast pull off the clever trick of acting mad without going over the top, which, with the audience so close has to extend to facial expressions as well.
In the central role of the Girl, Niamh-Lily Garvey is excellent, whether reacting with serene stillness or raving physicality to the indignities imposed on her. Impressive, too, is Bevan Thomson as the Young Priest; he moves particularly well on stage. Other notable performances come from Camille Bell as the Mother, who shows why her daughter has problems, Royston Paul as the weak and vulnerable Father who nevertheless wants the best for the girl, and Bogdan McHugh, who is more than a caricature of a pompous, sanctimonious Bishop: never before has it occurred to me that the devil and bishops dress in the same shade of red.
The set is simple and ingenious, making clever use of four large trellises at the back of the stage. Backlit figures behind a gauze are something of a theatrical cliché, but here they are used to good effect on the upper level. The sound is a work of art in itself: everything from African rhythms to radiophonic-type sounds, some of the effects being cleverly created in real time by members of the cast at microphones at the side of the stage.
Guest director Lee Hart has given his young cast an experience they won’t soon forget, and audiences a play that may move and puzzle them in equal measure. You can see it on 18 May at 7.30 or 19 May at 2.30 or 7.30.