Moira Buffini’s modern take on the Dark Ages gets a welcome outing at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre: excellently performed by a very strong company on spartan staging, this is a fantastic example of how excellent Off West End theatre can be.
You would be forgiven for not knowing much of the history of the Dark Ages – the whole reason we give them that moniker is because we know so little about what happened during those years. In this case, we’re in (roughly) 1000 BC, in a Britain savaged by Viking attacks during the reign of the delightfully named Ethelred the Unready. While the king rules from his bed, Norman princess Ymma is married off to the young lord of Cumbria, “Silence”, until Ethelred’s apocalyptic dream sends him after the young couple on a misguided quest for love and redemption.
Moira Buffini’s play is a rather wonderful beast; despite being set in ancient history, the dialogue is largely modern, and Buffini uses the setting to discuss a wide variety of themes, from gender roles and sexuality through to the fear of the apocalypse, giving the impression that the worries of humanity haven’t changed hugely in the last 1000 years. How accurate this is is debatable, but it doesn’t really matter: setting the play in pre-history has given the threat of death and violence much more poignant immediacy, replacing the collective sofas where these kind of topics would be discussed in modern stories with a much more action-packed setting.
It’s wonderful to see a play directed so smoothly – utilising the old theatre trope of stage boxes being used as various set items, director Jon Bradshaw manages to create a variety of locales on his sparse stage by keeping it as clean and clear as possible, with just three panels and the back to create the atmosphere of trees: very subtly staged.
The performers relish the crunchy, exciting and clever script, revelling in the modern dialogue whilst enjoying the Game-of-Thrones-y ambience. Daniel Brennan, in particular, has a rollicking good time as Ethelred and his transition from ineffectual to cruel and back again is a masterclass. Samantha Béart’s stolid and earnest Silence is lovely if not particularly striking, while Brigid Lohrey and Theo Maggs rise to the challenge of the complex characters of Ymma and Roger (respectively) with gusto. Lainey Shaw’s Agnés and Patrick Neyman’s Eadric are more one-note, but both find subtle moments within that – there’s not a single weak link here.
There’s absolutely nothing done wrong here: there are too many powerful moments to name them all, although Brennan’s apocalyptic monologue is a delectable interplay of sex, fear and Buffini’s wonderful language (only enhanced by Maggs’ quivering and Neyman’s intensity). Large Print Theatre have grasped everything there is to grasp in this excellent script: the Ginger and I were, at first, surprised by how much we were laughing, but this wasn’t bathos – the balance between the comedy of the lines and the intensity of the moments is pitched just right.
But it’s missing something: the slick direction has, frustratingly, done away with much of the sex, violence, dirt and grime of the script. We’re in pre-medieval Britain, and everyone’s clothes are immaculate. The sex and violence has been glossed over: scenes where there were clearly moments of either have been neutered. It’s all so slick that it’s been defanged – the intensity and fear are generated, but not earned. I hate to bring up Game of Thrones twice in the same review, but there the threat and sexuality is almost tangible. Characters get hurt, murdered, and naked incredibly often, but it’s not gratuitous – it’s visceral. And this production is in desperate need of some viscerality.
However, without that bugbear, it is still an incredibly good Off West End production – this is exactly the quality and professionalism smaller theatres can deliver, and a shining beacon of what the capital’s semi-professional theatres can offer. It’s missing a key element, but that’s forgiveable – everything else here is at the very top of its game. Absolutely recommended.