Article published: Saturday, July 25th 2015
While queuing outside Nexus Art Café in the Northern Quarter for A Dream Play by the Déjà Vu Ensemble, a car races up, the driver shoves a woman to the pavement and the performance begins. This was the introduction to the character Aggie, daughter of the gods, who has come to our world to learn what it means to be human.
Aggie surveyed her surroundings in amazement, then headed into Nexus, following the sound of ‘complaints’. As the audience followed her into the venue, they were confronted by depressed, naked man in a bath of books, struggling with writer’s block. This energetic and imaginative opening set the tone for the 90 minutes that followed.
Based on August Strindberg’s 1901 original, the venue-specific adaptation was compelling throughout. Like a dream, locations and characters drifted in and out, sometimes nearly instantaneously – two characters discussed their future lives together, and then they were married with a baby. The audience went from being a burlesque crowd to a classroom of school children in under a minute. The only consistencies were recurring themes of longing and desire, unfulfillment, repetition, expectation, and unfairness. Despite the levity of these themes, the overall tone is exciting and fun. Although the actors conversed in often illogical or incoherent ways, the performances themselves carried a high level and range of emotion that made them enthralling. No matter how surreal the scene, it was real to the characters: a marriage on the rocks due to disagreement over cabbage, a woman knitting a scarf of sorrow, or a door that never opened, everything was played straight. The performance felt otherworldly and was therefore able to carry some heavy subject matter without losing a sense of fun and wonder amongst the crowd.
Throughout the show, the production whisked the audience around the venue while the main seating area had action take place on three of its sides, making great use of Nexus’ multiple levels. Sometimes the audience was in-between the action, sometimes the action was right in the heart of the crowd and at one point we would have to cram into different parts of the room to catch the mayhem. The garden was crucial as home of the unopened door, and was the setting for many of the plays more poignant moments: scenes of deep unhappiness would linger in palpable silence, creating an unique and unnerving vibe for the audience, who were, like the characters, left huddled waiting for what would happen next. The production was tight, so when an area would take a while for the audience to enter, there was always something stimulating to keep the early arrivals from losing focus. A tiny exhibition room contained the frantic and almost inhuman Kirsten, who was darting around, Gollum-esque, “pasting love letters over the cracks”. The space was visited only once, but used to great effect: it was here that Aggie was trapped in her loveless marriage, a tiny windowless room, and the arguments and reconciliations that took place in here were, in spite of their humour, made all the more visceral by the audiences proximity.
The cast were fantastic throughout, all the actors had great comic timing while also hitting their sombre notes. Aggie conveyed her position as outsider excellently, from an initial amazement through to feelings of anguish and depression, eventually reaching a compassionate melancholy. The Officer, who sought to see behind the unopened door, gave a performance very human in its bargaining and pleading. The crowd’s favourite was probably The Quarantine Master, who put on one hell of a burlesque show, belting out a great rendition of ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ and bouncing off the audience in-between pondering her own unhappiness. Her act was so lively that it included a stage-dive less than halfway through. Music throughout was performed live by Louis Turner and as Klass Jervfors, Louise singing and playing guitar to give certain moments an almost cinematic feel and Klass’s French horn and cymbal added greatly to the eeriness of the show.
By the end of the play, a lot of big philosophical questions had been asked: Why does making ourselves happy hurt others? Why do we spend so long waiting for things to be different? Why are we never satisfied when things do change? But the answers were left open for the audience to ponder over. There was no curtain, bow or applause. The performance ended with Klass leading everyone out to the tune of his horn and, like a dream, we were back where we began, left on the pavement trying to recall the details of what we’d seen.
The Greater Manchester takes place from 1st to 31st July 2015 at various venues in Manchester and Salford, see the festival website for more information.
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