The Garden Party

July 26, 2020 | By | Reply More

★★★☆☆   Lucid

Zoom (live): 23 – 25 July 2020
Review by Thom Dibdin

The Garden Party, Vaclav Havel’s 1960s absurdist take-down of communist bureaucracy gets an invigorating and lucid outing in this live Zoom production from Big Mind Theatre.

Written in the early Sixties – and translated in 1969 by Very Blackwell – The Garden Party is dense with an underlying, never acknowledged, paranoia. Both its form and content might be very much of its time, but it turns out that the Zoom format is a perfect framework for contemporary presentation.

Ross Baillie, Mick Rowe, Liam Howie and Ben Fleming. Screengrab: Thom Dibdin.

The key, which director Katrina Woolley brings out clearly, is that this paranoia is the same fear of being wrong that permeates any bureaucratic structure when an authoritarian takes control.

It might be pushing it to see echoes of Westminster’s corridors of power, where Cummings is dismantling the UK civil service from inside. But from all reports, the fear of not saying the right thing is rampant. While, in bureaucratic terms, an Office for the Liquidation of other Offices, feels particularly apposite. Particularly when you are liquidating one office to replace it with another.

The play opens in the home of middle class Albert and Berta Pludek, who are concerned about the futures of their two sons, chess playing Hugo and bourgeois Peter (Liam Howie), a Ziggy-era David Bowie fan with an all-too materialistic girlfriend, Amanda (Nichole Cook).

nurtured aloofness

However, Ross Baillie as Albert and Mick Rowe as Berta, ensure it is all completely logical, no matter how bizarre (or ultimately meaningless) their aphorisms might be. Having given up on Peter, their concern is to get Hugo under the wing of a well-connected schoolfriend.

Ben Fleming gives Hugo an air of nurtured aloofness, a sophist who plays chess against himself – no matter that he loses, he always wins. His teenage superiority to his parents makes him oblivious to their concerns until it turns out that the friend is at a garden party – and Hugo might join him there…

Lucy Wilson, James Strahan, Charlotte Frost. Screengrab: Thom Dibdin.

If the Pludek’s middle-class platitudes are at least comic in their absurdity, those spouted by the gatekeepers at the Liquidation Office garden party are premium quality inanity. Moreover, everyone is so frightened of making a mistake that they are incapable of having an original idea, or even making a decision.

It’s eye-wateringly bizarre stuff, packed with utterly absurd repetition, as the gatekeepers Dolezal (James Strahan) and Emilia (Charlotte Frost) spout the same meaningless phrases back and forth, until they seem to make sense, all the while kow-towing to their superior, Falk (Lucy Wilson).

Strahan, Frost and Wilson bring an intensity to the whole thing as the characters scorn Hugo’s common sense, while bringing out buckets of their own twisted logic for him to lap up. Which he does easily, used as he is to taking both sides of a chess board.

focus

The Zoom effect gives everyone on stage an equal presence. So that, without Fleming hogging it, the chorus of bureaucratic non sequiturs becomes something of a backdrop to Hugo’s reactions as he absorbs the vernacular which will take him to the top of the bureaucratic ladder.

The focus of the whole piece thus moves away from the language to the contortions each character takes to work out whether they have to agree with the person they are talking to.

Caitlin Allen’s graphics help the narrative. Screengrab Thom Dibdin

Hugo’s final ascent is a brilliant piece of passive aggressive refusal to say or mean anything, allowing Chris Boydell as the director of the Liquidation Office to manipulate himself into the position where he believes Hugo to be in a position of power. Thus, by his belief, making him so.

If the Garden Party scenes are nuanced, Katrina Woolley’s direction perhaps looses its balance in the final scenes when Hugo returns to his family and is less assured than feels right. It certainly doesn’t fit with the rhythm of the script.

But that is a debatable point and overall this is a strong reading of a truly difficult piece. Judicious use of Caitlin Allen’s graphic designs smooths some tricky points of narrative and the Zoom framework is well used.

Running time: Two hours and 5 minutes (including one interval)
Online via Zoom:
Thursday 23 – Saturday 25 July 2020
Evenings: 7.30pm (BST)
Further details: Facebook Event Page.

ENDS

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