Theatre: A Clear Road
Ella Griffiths was impressed by a thought-provoking piece of new writing at the ADC
by Ella Griffiths
Friday 4th May 2012, 11:56 BST
The fact that A Clear Road takes a coffin on wheels as its inspiration goes some way in describing the bravery and originality of this production. Written by Harry Baker, a finalist studying English at Pembroke College, this stimulating piece of new writing explores death, war and family loyalties by tracing the journey of a brother and sister, Peter and Jean, through a war-torn landscape to bury their father. With the sparse emptiness of the stage reiterating the vagueness of location and historical setting, Baker uses this minimalism to convey the desolation of a post-war world that invites the audience to imaginatively construct the situations discussed.
As the sole prop, the coffin gains a haunting visual centrality as a symbol of omnipresent death forming the basis of striking Brechtian tableaus; it echoes hollowly as partisan soldiers stamp upon its lid and acts as a sombre backdrop to emotional conversations between the siblings. This simplicity is further reflected in how the plot eschews action-filled dramatic sequences in favour of cultivating an aggressively tense atmosphere, steeped in the memory of military atrocities in a land where “people are wolves”. With eerie violet light and the plucking of a guitar delineating the passage of time, the journey saw a growing intimacy between the siblings softening their initially stilted dialogue.
Hugh Stubbins as Peter effectively conveyed the weary bitterness of the displaced farmer with moments of wry humour, investing his words with a poignant physicality through his hunched postures and limping vulnerability. Similarly, Olivia Stocker in her role as Jean maintained a fragile, panicked sharpness throughout their developing relationship, probing the wounds of their past in an incisive examination of family tensions. Baker carefully orchestrated a shift into the abstract realm of political ideology by depicting the clash between the siblings and a band of partisan soldiers, with Julian Mack as the Chief seething with urgent masculine violence in his interrogation of the exhausted peasant.
While the pace of the play reflected the weariness of the travellers almost too realistically, a crucial injection of comic vitality was offered by Matthew Clayton as the endearingly bumbling soldier, Blue. His energetic discussion of a political ‘cause’ and wittily meta-theatrical depiction of a war-movie death with his comrade, the snarling Ryan Ammar, revitalised the lethargic progression of the journey. However, despite a strong performance from Chloe France melding a coolly clipped disdain with a potent erotic charge, the actors were occasionally restricted by occurrences of bland scripting, most noticeably in the Chief’s clichéd description of the “deeds that make us men”. While Baker offered a subtle ideological critique offsetting the familial tenderness of the siblings, certain lines required a stronger emotional impact or enhanced friction with the action in order to elevate the play to the level of dynamic electricity it could potentially offer.
Nevertheless, the thought-provoking quality of the ideas discussed, combined with the dramatic visual impact of the coffin and the rough naturalism of the actors, demonstrated that Baker has been able to channel the bleakness of his script into a magnetically atmospheric play.