O Human Child

Wed 14th – Fri 16th November 2012

reviews

Gavin Elias

at 19:01 on 19th Nov 2012

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There is only so much you can do with conventional theatre. At least, this seems to be the thinking of Kit Rees (producer), Tara Isabella Burton (director) and the rest of the cast and crew of ‘O Human Child’. And after witnessing their wonderful promenade melding of Shakespeare, Yeats, Rossetti, and Keats, I would be hard-pressed to disagree with them. Inviting the audience to slip into the beguiling twilight world of the fairy realm with an arsenal of verse, improv and raw physicality, the production taps into something primal, providing a unique and altogether otherworldly experience.

The central premise here – a night of love, debauchery, and outlandishness ensues as hapless mortals succumb to the irresistible allure of the fairy realm – fits perfectly with its promenade trappings. From the outset, the audience is fully immersed in the proceeding; shrieking fairies grasp their clothes and hands, fondling and leading them about the leaf-strewn hall (aptly minimalist) doubling as the forest while wailing lovers assail them in the midst of impromptu duels and wandering ingénues. One’s initial impression is of utter mayhem, as a flurry of action breaks out in every direction. Indeed, creating this sense of activity – so as to establish the tone and context of this strange world – seems to be the artistic aim for much of the play’s first third or so. Cleverly, though, the chaos congeals at certain points in order to allow key advances in the greater plot; audience members are gradually guided to certain positions to watch as certain events take center stage and other goings-on temporarily subside. These ‘set piece’ moments vary in quality, simply because the plot – by understandable virtue of its patchwork nature – isn’t necessarily coherent at every turn. Happily, however, the details and intricacies of the story aren’t the focus here; rather, the real magic lies in the atmosphere wrought by the carefully fashioned interactive element.

It is a great credit to the performers’ skills (especially their improvisation) that the many audience-cast encounters work as well as they do, as encouraging awkward spectators to engage in the proceedings must be a considerable feat. And the payoff of their success is as much as could be asked for, not only gifting each spectator with a unique, intimate and decidedly consuming experience, but also working at a thematic level by accentuating the inexorable siren call of the (theatrical) woods as they slowly suck in characters and audience alike.

The interactive element is only as good as the acting that supports it, of course, and it’s thankfully done no disservice by the show’s large and energetic cast, whose actions for the most part deftly straddle the line between the evocative and the flat-out bizarre. The fairies, for instance, are by turns whimsical and unnerving; convulsing and clucking, they display a feral physicality that wonderfully captures the sense of reckless youth being peddled to the play’s mortal characters. Emma D’Arcy stands out as the debauched, roguish Puck, slurring and stomping her way through some of the night’s most memorable verse. And her foil, the Fairy King, is imbued with an appropriate haughtiness by Leonie Nicks, while the Fairy Queen (Hannah-Kate Kell) cuts a more complex and emotive figure, one whose aphrodisiac-fuelled romp with the mortal Knight (Thomas Bailey in a suitably bewildered turn) stands out as one of the piece’s most arresting moments of drama. The many other actors involved also perform generally well, each injecting a palpable sense of energy into the piece. And while it may be a stretch to consider ‘O Human Child’ an acting tour de force, the crucial point is that it’s not trying to be: the performers’ displays subserve an overarching creation of context and mood rather than any penetrating character study, their actions - given an alarming immediacy by their proximity and tangibility – inform the fantastical realisation of desire and seductive escapism at the core of the piece.

‘O Human Child’ succeeds at that most intrinsic of theatrical goals: crafting a visceral emotional experience for its audience – an experience that engrosses, delights, and bewilders, often all at once. It makes a bold gambit to do so, but it’s certainly one that pays dividends.

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