Lockdown: theatres dark; audiences shunned; creativity on hold.
And: “No-one’s seen anyone in ages. Not just you.”
Enter – or should I say exit – Stage Door the highly innovative and presciently bold Naked Frank Theatre who never shy away from the big issues – bullying, homophobia and here, in the whimsically allegorical Gyrus & The Forest – mental health. Yes, if you’d ventured down to the woods you sure would have had a big surprise stumbling across this troupe of itinerant actors committing to celluloid their latest venture. Filmed entirely on location out of reach of the virus, Gyrus is a fascinating watch as the fable of the gluttonous king is re-told using masks, costume and a sentient ability to recount a tale uncannily drawing us, with our frayed-edged emotions, in and persuading us, almost, that we are back there, in the stalls, in the dark, imbibing the magic. Almost. It is a film after all, cleverly shot to appear as just one (45 minutes) take though I am sure it’s not. Precise editing (Digital Pie Ltd.) and eloquent direction by Carleigh-Ann Portelli giving that impression. (Eat your heart out Alfred Hitchcock in Rope (1948)).
Shot out in the forest it’s a ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ kind of message, I think, with the gluttonous king pulling up his drawbridge, spurning, even attacking, those that would help and support him. Mental health has taken a severe and long-lasting bashing during the seemingly never-ending months of necessary internment and Naked Frank want us to seek help and not shut out those who love and care. We may think we can handle it. But, in all probability, we can’t and we shouldn’t pull up the drawbridge to those whom we, love and love us and with whom we can share and who can help.
The piercingly astute Carleigh-Ann Portelli also wrote the piece displaying that elusive knack of combining good story-telling with a soft-focus exposition of the company’s targeted theme. The take-aways on mental health probably don’t completely hit home until we reflect on the piece once it’s finished. But the take-aways are there and are instructive. Claire Portelli is Maria, the veridical character who is aimlessly wandering about trying to confront the forest of her fears: Claire gives us an intriguing mix of innocent down-to-earthiness and wide-eyed wtf-am-I-doing-here-and-where-is-here? innocence. Benjamin Victor doubles as the King and the delicious Cat who teams up with Sofia Zervudachi, as the gossipy Goose, to present an intriguingly amusing double act of brickbats and badinage. Vilma Kitula is more church mouse than chatty Rat and keeps us involved in the trials and tribulations of someone who wants to help, who can help but is treated like, well, a rat. Besides writing and directing Carleigh-Ann guides us through the trees as Gyrus.
Particular mention must go to James Rose for his music – especially composed for the piece and a delightful counterpoint to this foresty fable. Never intrusive but always gently probing, reflective and enhancing.
Supported by Arts Council England the film is quite an undertaking – project-managed by Claire Portelli – for a group more used to treading the boards than following celluloid forest trails. The venture is also supported by Kent Community Foundation and Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust and Naked Frank Theatre is raising funds for MQ Research Mental Health Charity.
As we, hopefully, gradually get back into some kind of theatrical normality it’s wonderful to see a company like Naked Frank Theatre getting up, getting out there and shouting out “We are going to do stuff, challenging stuff and we will not let virus or pandemic or lockdown get in our way!”
Review by Peter Yates
Written by Carleigh-Ann Portelli, Naked Frank Theatre invite audiences to follow Maria, as she journeys deep into the forest and learns to cope with life in the aftermath of a global pandemic. It’s nearly Spring, but not everything is as simple as “let’s get back to the new normal”. This whirlwind tale of creatures great and small, challenges audiences to re-assess what it is to celebrate life again in the wake of COVID-19. Set in a beautifully enchanting forest, this mystical fable told by adults, for adults, is not children’s theatre and definitely not a fairytale. It’s a chance for “big kids” to lose themselves in the wilderness and recuperate after the last fourteen months.