At a time of jittery national uncertainty, as we ladle our way through an extraordinary mish-mash of magi-mix politics, it’s encouraging to come across a piece of theatre that boldly attempts to deconstruct democracy and explore the concept of community. I suspect there were some wise voices that urged writer Eilis Price not to go there (boldly or not) but I for one am glad she did as Pictland is not so much a song for Europe as a parable for society – yes, I mean that same society that Mrs T said didn’t exist.
It’s a thoughtful, perceptive piece that benefits from some astute direction by Joseph Winer and I think even the numbest Brexit-tranquilized mind would perk up a little at the provocative thoughts that Price lays before us.
Democracy ain’t no accident: its built, painstakingly, from ideas bound together with that illusive but co-operative-defining mortar of persuasion.
Director Winer marshals a cast of five with a forensic eye for detail combined with a kind of loose precision that confers on us the ability, as an audience, to silently participate in the discourse, the discussion of ideas – it’s a sort of confidential tête-à-tête between five performers and their invited audience guests.
Pictland, the country, is in the grip of famine. Nothing grows, isolated groups fend for themselves, protect their patch and dream of empires. The play pre-opens with Vis sitting on the back of donkey-impersonator Bosh as they
watch their field for any green shoots of salvation. I never quite understood why this particular sedentary configuration was vitally necessary though it led us in – as the show proper begins – to an amusingly convoluted conversation about clocks and how long is a piece of time. Subservient donkey-back provider Bosh is the softly brow-beaten floating voter who never votes, the kid who didn’t whizz, the stoic pack-horse who doesn’t bridle. It’s a lovely deft performance by Huw Landauer who becomes the voice of unreasonable reason and the Rome to which all the idea-roads eventually lead. Landauer gives us the calm outward serenity of a swan whilst his webbed brain is clearly flapping about all over the place under the surface. He’s a great foil – and straight man – to Andrew Atha as Vis, the wannabe firebrand revolutionary sitter-onner, who knows exactly what he wants but really doesn’t have much of a clue how to get it. Atha is clever and subtle in creating in Vis a character who likes to stir things up, sees himself as leader material and always wants more but can’t actually define what more is. The mysterious stone-carvings that have appeared are down to Vis which seem to be him saying – yes, I’m basically a caveman but I’m one of those pseudo-intellectual, metropolitan-elite type cavemen who’s going to change the world once I’ve had my latte. Atha and Landauer are a great double act and it’s almost a shame when their free-flowing time-explainer riffing is interrupted by Mo, who is the leader. Shavariya Padayachee is demonstrably magisterial in her strident gestures and authoritarian pitch to the masses (well, the other four). Don’t mess with me is her maxim – unless, that is, you put forward arguments which confuse my staight-talking, no-nonsense persona. It’s a strong performance by Padayachee and effectively portrays the concept that a leader (prime minister, perhaps) can be constricted and controlled by their own followers (parliament… maybe).
Stephanie Aguele enters the fray as Tak, a feisty, loud, dominating provocateuse who’s up for the fight but seems to risk being on the wrong side in the wrong war. Aguele is funny and sharp, brittle and warm and she brings some scathing wit and censorious eyebrow to the proceedings. Her sidekick is Shan, played with immaculate empathy by Alice Hope Wilson – the perennial seer of both sides of the argument, the tempered voice of fairness, the self-appointed referee whose gentle but persistent decision making smoothes the way to the next topic of debate. It’s a fine performance by Wilson who clearly has the nous to ensure that writer Price’s ideas are given proper weight and clarity.
The studio space at the Watford Palace is really just a room with chairs but some clever lighting by Caelan Oram creates a suitably effective atmosphere for the show – though I wasn’t convinced by the houselights coming up over
the end sequence – and director Winer uses the thrust floor-level stage-space effectively throughout the piece. Talking to Winer afterwards I asked about the fact that the female actors take roles in Pictland but all are referred to as men when it seemed to me that it made no difference to the narrative if they were played as women. Winer said that Price had written the pice as five male roles and despite casting females he had decided to keep the male pronouns – even though one of them wears a dress. I’m afraid I’m clearly not woke enough to be able to understand the niceties of that but I would gently suggest that the last thing you need in what is a highly accessible, though challenging, exposition of political ideas is a distraction and an irrelevant distraction at that. But that’s just me!
Pictland is presented by the PackPack Collective as part of the Watford Fringe – now in its third year – with 65 shows across 10 venues throughout the town. It’s a lively programme and a clearly burgeoning event which is marking out its own space in the increasingly crowded Festival calendar. The show gives us a good inkling that there is quality stuff on display in Watford and it’s great to see up-and-coming companies given the space to cut their teeth. Pictland is destined for other festivals and, hopefully, a London fringe theatre space which is good news as the play richly deserves further outings.
Review by Peer Yates
After two years of famine, five Picts on an empty field need to decide whether to stay where they are and risk starvation, or travel down south and potentially face something even worse. And if they leave as a group, what will make them their own “community”? Through witty and philosophical discussion, democracy is put to the test to establish the conditions of the group. But what really needs to be sacrificed in order to build a nation?
Pictland was first performed at the Arcola Theatre in London as part of Act II: A Festival of New Plays (formerly LSDF) in March 2019.
Pictland written by Eilis Price, directed by Joseph Winer, presented as part of the Watford Fringe Festival.
Alice Hope Wilson
Stage Manager: Roma Radford
Photography by Dione Sarantinou
12 October 2019, 5.30pm (Running Time 40 minutes)
Watford Palace Theatre Studio, 20 Clarendon Road, Watford, WD17 1JZ