Debuting on Wednesday, March 16th, Sussex University Drama Society (SUDS) presented an evening of two short, twenty-minute plays. The plays were completely unrelated, set in two different dimensions, and all inside the dome of the Debating Chamber in Falmer House, which often gets transformed into a black-box for the wild imaginations of SUDS.
The first play (directed and written by Joe Egan), Century 16, had no props: it filled up the stage with just a spotlight and sound effects; the actors (Joe Ward, Thomas Bolton King, Juliet Farley, Sophia Kendall, Hannah Jackson and William Walker) — all in black attire — stood facing the walls a mere second away from the spotlight in the centre stage.
Each delivered a short monologue spanning from the Battle of The Somme to a present day: a soldier stuck in the horrors of the trenches (Ward), a fisher-man (Bolton King) just having witnessed the Nazi invasion of the Rhineland, a girl’s (Farley) testimony of the Hungarian Uprising, an account (Kendall) of life under Pol Pot’s dictatorship across the 1970’s in Cambodia and a German’s (Jackson) remorse toward her country’s fall into the fabrications of the Third Reich and imploring the audience to always remember the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Last, but certainly not least, Walker entered the stage among the pitch-dark audience; he was the last performer and I, admittedly, originally believed he was sitting in the middle of the aisle because his height might have impeded someone behind him to see. With the arrival of Walker, the play suddenly changes time period and we are currently in a present day, the Shoah has been over for seventy-one years and we remember the fallen every year on Holocaust Remembrance day.
Yet, there is no relief, Walker’s monologue introduces a new disaster — many actually — like the on-going one in Syria. He makes a stark, poignant argument, his words (in a London variation) send chills up the audience’s spine; we shouldn’t forget the past, yes, but we cannot allow ourselves to forget the past in times like these, because every day is a different horror for the people in Syria, and for every person that dies in the face of prejudice is another step back for humanity.
The cast falls out beside Walker at the end, somehow they send signals of hope and compassion. Their words still deeply rooted in our history and yet still very relevant today, it’s almost as if they’re a voice of reason inside our consciousness. Century 16 leaves you breathless, saddened and speechless altogether, each story building up anxiety as the actors step into the light from the shadow.
For Egan’s first attempt at writing/directing (previously starring in I don’t want to talk about it, Dealers Choice and Black Comedy), he did a marvellous job and not just at picking his cast but also by so neatly directing a play with so much tension, emotion and rich historical context.
The second play enters a different space as the audience is brought into a train station and props are presented, a bench and a suitcase are now in plain sight. Platform (directed by Lucy Gray and written by Gabriel Owen) is a duologue (Gabriel Owen and Paddy Fleming) between two strangers in a railway station. Anthony (Owen), a Scotts-man is, undeniably, angry and his train being delayed certainly doesn’t make it any easier.
Once he sits on the bench, with bubbling rage, we hear “Reading!” coming from Gerald (Fleming). The audience laughs as the contrast between livid Anthony and cheerful Gerald is quite comical, the comparison continues to be a leitmotif across the twenty minutes of the play. Reluctantly, Anthony begins to converse with Gerald, the latter begins to hand prized possessions to the former, such as an aged bottle of whiskey and a watch that’s been handed down generations in his family.
At first Anthony is confused, or rather weirded-out, by this overly enthusiastic stranger that continues to show compassion even when he consistently reject him. Finally, Anthony begins to show a little less rage and a bit more sorrow as he opens up to why he’s at the station and where he’s really going.
As it turns out, Anthony doesn’t know where he’s destined to and he’s at the station because he’s running away from his cheating girlfriend, who spent months at his step-brother’s apartment instead of attending Spanish lessons and running from having beaten a (quasi) family member after he found out the affair. In sum he’s running away from his life that, as of now, looks like a giant façade. Gerald feels sympathy but doesn’t agree, running away doesn’t solve anything, and why should you run away when you’ve done nothing wrong?
After all, your demons follow you everywhere and no change, big or small, is ever going to obliterate your past. But that’s not such a bad thing, after all this is what weaves our identity.
Platform can have a number of interpretations, Gerald can be seen as an extension of Anthony, a fragment of his consciousness, in which case Anthony is actually reasoning with himself (which might explain the bottle of whiskey and the watch), or the cheerful character can simply be a man on a journey of his own who shows a little bit of warmth to someone who really needs it (which may look grand in contrast to Anthony’s retaliations).
The most touching bit is at the very end when Gerald tells Anthony it’s time for him to leave and Anthony reacts genuinely (could have been the whiskey though) upset about his departure, suddenly not wanting him to leave anymore.
The play was written and designed skilfully, the lighting and train station sound effects were done perfectly, the structure of the DC also allowed for the play to more realistically be set at night, projecting a slightly hazy and dream-like quality, which is also corroborated by the actors’ exceptional performance, particularly by Fleming’s absurdity and Owen’s affliction masked by perpetual irritation.
Gray (who had previously produced and co-directed Grey Skies, Posh and Blackfield Inn directed the Edinburgh show Toys, wrote and directed Shakespeare’s Sisters and starred in Life and Death) knew what she was doing and, seemingly effortlessly, pulled off yet another fantastic play.