England, by Tim Crouch, is the story of a woman in a relationship with an art collector who travels the world sourcing paintings, leaving her largely alone as she gets sick and finds out she needs a heart transplant.
The two-hander featuring Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy begins with the audience being undertaking a tour of an art gallery at Metro Arts that displays work by several contemporary, local artists (Amelia K Fulton, Brigid, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Myers and Damien Pasquale). After we are given a little of the history of Metro Arts there is a sudden shift in tone and the play is no longer in the gallery. We are in an apartment, a church, a hospital, hearing intimate details of both of the characters’ relationships with a suspiciously similar man. It is unclear whether it is indeed the same man, or whether the characters exist at the same time and place? Are they in parallel universes? In different places?
Speaking with the director, Matt Seery, after the show, I get some clarity. He explains, “The script doesn’t offer answers. It specifies there’s a male and female, but then it doesn’t delineate who says what lines”.
Seery consciously decided to tell the woman’s story, but transplant the character into both actors. Transplant is a strong theme of England. In fact, the play seems to be an experimentation in transplanting both form and content which is evident from the outset- the show is a very different experience to the usual, passive theatre going. The audience walks into a sparsely decorated gallery with white walls, large hip-height windows and wooden floors splattered with droplets of paint. Before the show starts we have ten or minutes to mosey around the gallery and look like we find deep meaning in each of the paintings. At one end of the gallery some stools were set up, all facing two chairs on a small unlit stage. Gradually, almost everyone came and sat down in that area, in the dark. Suddenly, the show began in another (lit) area of the gallery and everyone hastened to relocate. The assumption that we were meant to be sitting on the stool showed everyone was expecting/wanting a show that took familiar form. Instead, the audience was transplanted into an unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable experience. This is true of the first act in particular, which hurled information at the audience (dates, places, artist names), and while it was a little overwhelming, it remained very engaging.
Throughout the piece the actors occasionally engage directly with audience members and while it’s done very gently, can still be uncomfortable for some audience members. Of course, England was originally created for a gallery in London so, in a sense, the play itself has been transplanted to Metro Arts as well.
From an actor’s perspective, this is a hell of a show to do. The characters are constantly referring to people and places that are not there. They very rarely connect with each other on stage and this isolation is indicative of the loneliness that can be experienced even when in relationships.
Loneliness is another strong theme throughout the play. Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy both do an excellent job of taking the audience with them to places far beyond the gallery. They give strong, vivid performances that remain interesting and accessible even through the fragmentation and ambiguity of the script. Lighting is kept as natural to the environment as possible, so the normal gallery lights are used sparingly with little theatricality. On occasion, background music/sound is used to unobtrusively emphasise a particular feeling in the play. This allows the actors’ performances to remain the focus of the play.
Seery’s vision for his directorial debut was to explore a play with various layered meanings and provoke the audience to “consider your presence and what it does to marginalise and invisible-ise and remove others.”
Without being didactic, the play is quite a political work. The audience is taken through the story of a couple who is surrounded by art which they put so much value in. For example, a person may spend some time looking at a piece of art while thinking about the artist’s intention, and yet give little though to seeing a photo of a refugee drowning.
Upon talking to the director after the show, Seery said, “The only thing that can transcend communities and country borders and language barriers, without changing value is human life. We had a saying in rehearsals- ‘There is no exchange rate on the value of a human life’.”
Seery has certainly tackled England in a way that gave him lots of room to showcase his directorial vision, and he has done a remarkable job in paying incredible attention to the smallest of details in its staging.
So come take a trip to England. It may be a little outside your comfort zone, but it will leave you with plenty to think and talk about. Personally, I find the best kind of theatre is theatre that makes your re-evaluate the way you see the world and your place in it, and England is theatre with enough heart to do just that.