The Violence Series @ Theatr Clwyd, Mold

The Violence Series is a set of three dystopian style drama’s, set Orwellian style in a world that is recognisably ours, but one which we have not quite attained. They are not physically frightening plays, more a bleak window into the future, which is often more disturbing than watching a fight break out when you begin to realise the future portrayed is not that far off.

The plays were commissioned by The Other Room, an award-winning pub-theatre in Cardiff. The Other Room is renowned for making drama that is both distinctive and visionary; drama that makes you think about the consequences long after you’ve gone home. Each of the three plays are profoundly different, but they all explore the divisions in society and look at the darker side of humanity.

American Nightmare by Matthew Bulgo

Ahhhh, the American Dream. The belief that everyone has the opportunity to pursue their own happiness. It doesn’t matter where you are born, what class of society you are in, or what religion you follow, you can achieve whatever level of success you want. Success is possible to anyone through hard work and sacrifice, taking risks rather than relying on luck to get you to your goal.

Sounds ideal…but what happens when the distance between the American reality and the American Dream becomes an enormous yawning cavern? What happens when the American Dream becomes an American Nightmare? Just how far are you willing to go to keep pursuing your Dream?

New York City. The super-rich wine and dine in skyline restaurants dreaming of bigger and better cities. In a military bunker on the outskirts of the city, the poor are competing for food and promotion in a sinister initiative. This drama explores the great divide between those who have it all and those who have nothing. It is a bleak look at the future that awaits us; but what is more horrific is that the world Matthew Bulgo has created might already be in existence.

We live in a world where the gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger. The rich and powerful can buy their way into what they want. They can buy the world’s media…spread whatever lies they want and paint them as truth. And whilst the rich are playing games with each other, the poor are foraging for scraps, reliant on food banks or a helping hand-out on the streets.

In this, the first of three dystopian drama’s, the audience is kept waiting outside, only being allowed to walk into the theatre moments before the play begins. They are met with a vision of two individuals lying on opposite walls to each other in what looks like a grey prison cell. This compact staging draws you into the characters world, but before the characters utter a word, the closed doors at the back of the set open to reveal a clandestine meeting between two businesspeople in a swanky, brightly coloured, skyline restaurant. As they quaff their Dirty Martini’s we automatically take in the great class divide, the staging physically shows the upper class versus the lower class; one looking down on the other. The middle class no longer exists.

“Lot of unhappy people.”
“Thing’s are broke.”
“And when thing’s are broke they need fixing.”
“Not that I’m complaining. Lotta profit in chaos.”

Ruth Ollman (Clara) is an American businesswoman meeting British businessman (Greg) played by Chris Gordon. She is shrewd, calculating and knows what she wants. She plays games with Greg, a British architect and town planner. He is innocent and confused at the start of the play, believing he is at an ordinary after hours business meeting over dinner, but as the play progresses and he tries to interrogate Clara over her job, what she does, why he has been chosen for this meeting – the answers seem to confuse and disturb him. That is until the $ signs are shown and all integrity may be lost on the wind.

Gwydion Rhys and Lowri Izzard play two desperate twenty-somethings, Elwood and Daria. They are being held at a mysterious training facility with green lights on the walls – reminiscent of The Great Gatsby, where various symbols were used to portray the American Dream. The green light was symbolic of Gatsby's hopes and dreams, whilst the Valley of the Ashes represented America's obsession with wealth and the consequences that it brought. In American Nightmare, a chip has been placed in the “volunteers” arm and is monitored by means of the lights on the wall. A green light means the person is stress free – if the light turns orange it means the person is getting agitated and can be ejected from “the program.”

The third wheel of the play is The Program, played by Richard Harrington. His image is projected on the walls as his voice booms out at the inmates:

“All contact with the outside world is prohibited
All cell phones must be surrendered
All devices that transmit or receive are strictly forbidden…
Each one a’ you has a story
My momma’s got cancer ‘n’ I can’t pay fore treatment
My husband’s too sick to work how’m I gonna put food on the table…
Empathy makes you weak.
A period of decompression will commence upon arrival…”

As The Program continues, there are subtle shifts in the behaviour of the inmates. As the business meeting continues, we learn more about the characteristics of the elite. Throughout the play, Bulgo drip feeds the audience information, building up an ambiguous but sinister picture which is exposed in its entirety in the final scenes. A chilling but fascinating production.

The Story by Tess Berry-Hart

What would you do if you left your homeland to carry out humanitarian aid on foreign shores, only to be denied access back to your home when you return? How can you be sure that your selfless actions were just that and not some elaborate scheme to which you were blissfully unaware?

Inspired by her work with refugees from Assad’s jails and Libyan prisoners, Tess Berry-Hart has woven together a tale exploring personal responsibility and moral condemnation via the story of a volunteer worker returning home to find that she has become an enemy of the people. As “The Story” unravels, the negative language used to stigmatise the “other” person shows how we and society become able to justify to ourselves that violence is ok.

“I’m going to tell you a story. It’s not a bedtime story. It’s not for those who are afraid of the dark. It doesn’t have a happy ending. Or it might do. We’ll see. The beauty of it is that it changes in the telling, depending on who you are and what you’re hearing, a dance where you don’t know who’s leading, a way that keeps changing, where your story is your only passport…”

We all know the feeling either when we are going on a flight somewhere or getting off a flight and we just want to get home, freshen up, go to bed, start a new day. Airports for me are very stressful. I’m the person who knows they haven’t got anything in their case they shouldn’t have, that I’ve put all my toiletries in a clear plastic bag for checking, that my electronic devices are separated in the box so security can see it clearly…I wear trainers – laces undone so they can swiftly be removed before walking through the scanner…yet I still fear the alarms going off, being bundled away by some officious person, being condemned for something I haven’t done.

As I walk through the scanner or passport control and I’m given the all-clear, I breathe a huge sigh of relief…but why? I’ve got nothing to hide…so why be fearful of a system designed to protect me? Is it me I don’t trust…or is it more likely I don’t trust those in power…those who reputedly have my best interest at heart? It’s an interesting question and one that I pondered more and more as I watched X (sat on a chair wearing travelling clothes, obviously tired) being interrogated by V (a harassed person in a uniform, sitting in another chair, clipboard in hand.)

The second play in the trilogy opens with a projected computerised image of The Storyteller on three screens. As she fades away and the lights go up, X, played by Siwan Morris is sat on a chair waiting. She looks tired and uneasy and it is not long before we see why. An authoritative looking person arrives with clipboard and butty box in hand. Dressed in an official’s uniform, she starts, “Now I’ve got a copy of your border entry application here, and so we, The People, have to ask you a few questions; it’s protocol really, but you know, always better to be safe than sorry.”

Protocol? Really? As the play develops, it becomes clear it’s not just a bit of box ticking and that X is being accused of being radicalised and is being coerced into making a confession by V, played by Hannah McPake who gives a versatile performance as she keeps returning to the stage as different incarnations of what is ostensibly the same person.

What starts off as a friendly chat, soon descends into an interrogation where X is a prisoner, just as confused as the audience is, as to why she is being held against her will. This two-hander story is uncomfortable to watch as we bear witness to X spiralling into madness, convinced she has done nothing wrong, but willing to say anything just to get out of the confines of being locked up and unable to get home. As there are only two characters, the anonymous X & V, the play highlights the power an individual wields and how words can be distorted and manipulated. Another term that could be used is gaslighting…where you can be forced into believing something that is not true. The mental abuse that X suffers is so disorientating that she begins to question her own sanity. She is beginning to lose her sense of identity; she is becoming less of a person the longer she is subjected to this incessant torture.

Whilst this is a work of fiction, it is based on the writer’s experience of volunteering around war zones and the emotional and psychological violence exhibited feels very close to the bone. During the last few years of Brexit we have seen the rhetoric of the far-right and media outlets about refugees; they have been described as the “enemy of the people” and that they come here against the “will of the people.” This type of phraseology is found throughout The Story, however I don’t think the play went deep enough to explore how real refugees are seen, the demands of the volunteers that go out to assist them and what they both go through – it merely touches upon the surface issues.

The play concentrates upon the effects of psychological torture and it does this very well with outstanding performances by both those inflicting pain and those enduring it and it does make the audience reflect and question whether what we hear and see about politically emotive issues is real, and what is manufactured to make us believe that there is an existential problem where one doesn’t exist.

Hela by Mari Izzard

Set in Wales, this bilingual play opens-up a series of dark family secrets where justice is determined by a computer algorithm. But is the data reliable enough to produce the right justice, and what is the right justice? If the data that has been used is untrustworthy, then the algorithm will be wrong and justice cannot be served and if this is the case, how far should a person go to ensure that a proper punishment is delivered?  

This is the third and final “violence” play, and it is perhaps the most hard-hitting because it has children at the core of the story. It is another two-hander play, a locked-room drama in which an emotional and gripping subject is condensed into about 60 minutes. The play opens with Hugh, played by Gwydion Rhys, sitting, tied to a chair in a grimy, white-tiled room. He looks as bewildered as the audience is as to why he is sitting there. Enter Erin, played by Lowri Izzard, babbling in Welsh to Hugh who is left furthermore confused as he responds in English to her.

As the play proceeds, Erin continues to interact with Hugh in Welsh and Hugh continues to ask questions in English, making the audience believe that Hugh does not understand or speak Welsh. Fortunately for me (and Hugh) Erin helpfully pulled the cover off a wall mounted monitor and instantly her Welsh dialogue was translated on screen for non-Welsh speakers to understand exactly what was being said!

The initial interactions in the play make us believe that Erin is a teenager and possibly a fellow prisoner with more privileges than Hugh, and so we feel empathy with Hugh’s plight, that of being ensnared in a strange environment with no idea why. As the play continues, the audience’s curiosity changes from intrigue to horror and disgust. There is a sudden shift towards Erin’s situation, she is not a prisoner, she has lost her child and Hugh is to blame. She tortures Hugh to get to the truth, to find out where her child is and the audience now finds itself seeing a totally new perspective and it begins to side with Erin. As each new nugget of information is revealed, the audience is faced with the dilemma of how the new world may look – a world which is dominated by technology and the consequences that domination may have on human actions and decisions in the future.

I have never watched a play in any other language than English, but Hela is a play accessible to both Welsh and non-Welsh speaking audiences and it makes perfect sense against the narrative of the play. In other words, the use of Welsh is not just ticking a box on diversity. The opening scene in which we believe that Hugh does not understand Welsh is perfectly plausible, but it also shows how two people can speak in their own language and still manage to communicate. It also opens-up another theme in the play without being heavy handed about it. There are jokes about the Welsh language – how a simple English word can be made very complicated in Welsh - but the play illustrates the great language divide, why some people feel passionate about using their mother tongue, and why others (like Hugh) cease from using the language, feeling that it has no bearing on their life anymore. It was interesting and poignant seeing why Hugh’s Welsh language skills were now lacking, but also interesting seeing how technology could bridge that divide.

In Conclusion

I caught The Violence Series at the end of its tour, which is a shame, as I would thoroughly recommend viewing the plays. As it is, I can recommend reading the associated books published by Oberon instead. Don’t let the title “Violence Series” put you off.  The violence is a reflection on our world, mirroring the emotional and destructive forces around us. Each play is disturbing in its own way. American Horror shows the world falling apart around us as we sit and watch its destruction. The Story is a tragic situation you might watch on the news which could happen to anyone, whilst Hela becomes the worst nightmare that could happen to someone if they don’t keep an eye on technological advances and how it both benefits and causes destruction to people’s lives. Each story unique, but as a trilogy they are equally fascinating and terrifying as they all paint a picture of the future….a future that is frighteningly close at hand.