Can someone who has done the worst thing imaginable ever be truly forgiven or trusted to re-enter the normal world. And, if they are to be forgiven, who is responsible for bestowing that forgiveness upon them? Some pretty deep themes then to find at the Brockley Jack Theatre where they are currently showing Julian Garner’s play The Awakening.
In a very small cell, Johannes (Alex Dowding) is serving a life sentence for a horrific crime. He has been in solitary confinement for two years and apart from the guards, Johannes’ only other visitor is Captain Agnes (Grace Cookey-Gam), a prisoner reformer and all round pillar of the community. The prison regime is brutal and Johannes has become very institutionalised in his time within it. His day is spent reading the bible and interacting with the guards that bring him his very basic food. Somehow, he makes sense of his world and appears to have reached an equilibrium. Until one morning a new guard comes to bring him his breakfast. Herr Iverson (Jarren Dalmeda) isn’t like the other guards. He doesn’t respond to Johannes’ cheery greeting or outstretched hand. He wants to punish Johannes and make him suffer for his crimes.
Moving forward, Captain Agnes eventually manages to get Johannes released on a parole system that means he has to go to a farm and work. She takes him to a lonely island where he is introduced to the farmer Unn (Joana Nastari) who initially continues to treat him as a prisoner and does not relish the idea of having him foisted on her by Captain Agnes with whom Unn has very old unresolved issues.
You know how it is sometimes. You’ve had a long week at work, the traffic getting to the theatre was awful and it’s stifling hot. You take your seat, the lights go down and a really heavy play is performed in front of you. Your mind, may wander off a bit – how long will it take to get home? Will I be able to get a cold drink in the interval? Etc. Well, I can honestly say that this never occurred once with The Awakening. From the moment I entered the auditorium to see the young Johannes lying on the floor, a bible for a pillow I was hooked right through to the extremely powerful and thought-provoking ending. The Awakening is a very engrossing story that, as with all great writing, leaves many in the the audience wondering about their own feelings towards the story and characters they have been introduced to.
Florence Watts’s very simple set, combined with Jennifer Rose’s lighting, Max Graef’s sound design and astute direction by Madeline Moore, ensure the story moves at a perfectly pitched place, establishing locations and times beautifully and whilst enhancing the narrative, never distracting the viewer from the story and acting itself.
Moving to the actors, and I don’t think I can speak highly enough about the truly awe inspiring performance delivered by Alex Dowding as Johannes a character who, despite the crime he has committed, is so full of innocence that you can’t help but wonder how he ever managed in the real world. It’s difficult to put an age to Johannes but there is a childlike simplicity and trust in others that shines through him. Considering his crime, it’s really difficult to talk of Johannes in this way but somehow, Alex makes the audience – or at least this one – really warm to him. I came away considering if, in a different society, Johannes would have found himself in solitary confinement in a brutal prison. I really can’t praise Alex enough for his portrayal of this young innocent who likes to believe the best in everyone but is so worried that he will never be forgiven that he physically punishes himself for being human. A lot of the first act of the play depends on the relationship between Johannes and Unn and the casting director definitely got this right in the pairing of Alex and Joana Nastari. From their first meeting to the last moment we see them together, these two actors seemed very natural together. Initially, I hated the character of Iverson who was full of barely suppressed menace but as we got to know him, and thanks to Jarren Dalmeda’s wonderful portrayal of this very complex character, I became more understanding of him. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Agnes. I’m afraid I disliked her from the start and nothing that occurred changed my mind. Full credit to Grace Cookey-Gam but I think the character is not that well written and I never really warmed to her.
Overall then, The Awakening is a very intense drama with a small, but highly talented cast, that takes the audience and slaps them out of their nice warm complacency as they have to judge their own moral code and how they would have dealt with a problem like Johannes. I don’t say there is a right way or a wrong way or even that I have an answer myself but this great theatrical experience has certainly made me stop and think.
Review by Terry Eastham
by Julian Garner
presented by DLProductions
directed by Madelaine Moore
Johannes is serving a life sentence for murder.
Released on parole from an abusive prison system, reformer Agnes secures him a place working on a remote farm. Here he unwittingly becomes embroiled in an old, unresolved grudge.
Left to find his way in the world for the first time, events take a turn in ways they could never have predicted.
What Johannes did is the worst thing anyone can do, there is nothing worse.
But how do we put it right?
Tues 6 to Sat 24 September 2016 at 7.45pm
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre