Pros: An issue-driven production that does not force the issue down your throat.
Cons: The production occasionally felt over-stylised, and some of the scenes dragged on longer than others.
Before I do anything else I’m going to have a stab at defining what The Manual Oracle is. It’s not easy…
The production is a collection of short sketches and vignettes inspired by the Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia, a sort of seventeenth century code of conduct for members of the Spanish court. It is made up of about 300 maxims advising how to behave in order to advance up the greasy pole of aristocracy. Each maxim betrays a bizarre sense of paranoia, encouraging its readers not to trust anyone, believe anything too easily, or associate with anyone who will put you in the shade. Perhaps most troubling of all is the show’s tagline, “Always act as if you are being watched.” Phoebe von Held’s production, presented as part of the Anxiety Arts Festival 2014, uses a selection of these maxims as inspiration for a variety of sketches. Some are comic, some sad, some abstract, and some completely bizarre.
There, I think I did it. And luckily for you that’s about all the context you need to enjoy this curious piece of theatre. I was a little sceptical before I entered the theatre about experiencing a piece of issue-driven drama – I often find that the production can focus too much on tackling the issue at hand rather than producing a quality piece of theatre. However, The Manual Oracle manages to engage with both text and subject matter without ever feeling too contrived.
The simple white aesthetic of the production, carried through set and costumes, is beautifully designed and works practically for some of the innovative projections that are used over the course of the show. Everything is carefully stylised to make the variety of scenes on display feel enjoyably abstract rather than disconnected.
Phoebe von Held – writer, director and creator of the project – has done a really great job of making The Manual Oracle cohesive. However, sometimes her stylisation goes a little bit too far. In one of the longer sketches for instance – a monologue – the speaker uses a voice distorter for its entirety that makes it quite hard, and a little painful, to hear what is being said.
Like I said though, the design is really lovely. Maria Paz-Garcia creates some lovely projections for a couple of the sketches, and Emma Robinson’s giant masks are terrifying.
At an hour and a half it is just about the right length. Naturally some sketches are more enjoyable than others, which is probably a matter of taste. Personal highlights for me were Margaret Thatcher’s spin doctors carefully orchestrating her public image before a party conference speech, and a paranoid and confused man trying to gain access to his medical records by force. The ensemble of four is really strong, and they jump between roles with impressive smoothness. Most importantly of all, the production gives a great representation of the sensations of paranoia and anxiety, and how they can manifest themselves. It never stops being thought-provoking.
Finally, a quick word on the theatre. The Yard is a delightful converted warehouse space in Hackney Wick with an interesting performance space and a buzzing bar. There’s not much soundproofing when the performance is going on, but I left wanting to go back to the theatre just to experience the space again.
(Oh, and it’s a small thing, but I think Will Brady’s design is one of my favourite theatre posters I’ve seen!)
Author: Phoebe von Held, based on the 17th century text by Baltasar Gracián, and with additional material by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams
Director: Phoebe von Held
Producer: Gwen van Spijk
Booking Until: 14th June
Box Office: 07548156266 (not a booking line)
Booking Link: www.theyardtheatre.co.uk