Monday, December 01, 2014

Experimental theatre in the cosy world of Richmond's Orange Tree makes for an uncomfortable evening - for some!

"Pomona" at the Orange Tree Theatre has been very well received by the critics. I'm not sure how you would classify it (perhaps you wouldn't) but "experimental theatre" will do for me. As a very regular theatre-goer, albeit an aging one, I found it one of the most disturbing and unpleasant evenings I have ever experienced. In saying this I am not disagreeing with the critics - we look at the Arts of all types from the subjective comfort zone of our own preferences. A critic will want to be seen to embrace the new - there is so much pap out there that when somebody breaks new ground I can see why they cheer! But the "Orange Tree" doesn't do pap. Around the corner at Richmond Theatre you will see some Box Office friendly blancmange at times (you'll also see some terrific theatre as well. You pays your money and makes your choice). But the "Orange Tree" doesn't do that. No Soap stars, or star names at all. No crowd-pleasing popular entertainment. Just good plays - both neglected works from the past and good modern drama. And always superb acting. Sam Walters, long-time director, had a knack for finding actors of quality and blending them together. That is continuing under his successor Paul Miller and the cast of "Pomona" is nothing short of outstanding. If it as difficult a play to perform as it is to watch (I suspect it is) then the actors achievement is immense.

Back to the play. We are in a strange modern world where there seems to have been a breakdown of order. In that world dysfunctional characters  have lives where the norms of conventional behaviour are not present. Into that world come newcomers who are forced to conform if they want to progress - one is looking for a lost sister another wants to play a complex board game which is acted out in a role-playing charade. If this sounds odd, well it is ! There is a plot, of sorts, though it was not for me a "thriller" - I couldn't really believe in any of the characters or care about them much. Within this setting the play unfolds with grotesque events played out in a pit - two buckets of blood thrown into it was a low point for me. We have violence - a lot of it, acted out and threatened. We have the abuse of power, threatening behaviour, prostitution, a large man walking around in dirty underwear, a young girl in a grotesque Doctor Who type mask. And so on.

Theatre sometimes needs to challenge and to shock. But in doing this it surely needs substance - and of that there is very little in "Pomona" . Is there even the tiniest vestige of a "message" - if there was I missed it. "Anything goes" in The Arts and so it should, but to work it needs to have an appropriate time and place. Is this play a commentary on modern times? Not really. And is the "Orange Tree" the appropriate place for experimental theatre. Absolutely not! The good burghers of Richmond know what they like and like what they know. We know that the Orange Tree will always entertain and often surprise us. But within the boundaries of reasonable good taste and a modicum of convention. This production, brilliantly staged and acted as it is, goes beyond these boundaries. It is foul-mouthed for little reason and the imagery is emetic. It was frankly a relief when it was over. But I suspect that theatre goers forty years younger than me will have liked it. And if so I should probably leave it there!