Pros: A high-quality and interesting play on a fascinating subject that packs a few surprises. A must-see for Francophiles.
Cons: If you’re in a hurry, have an aversion to French or the endless banging about of crates, this is not for you.
We’re in 12th-century France with the Cathars, a Christian dualist movement that recognised no priesthood. They were considered heretics and mercilessly persecuted, from which sprang the ugly, massacre-justifying phrase: “”Kill them all, God will know His own”. It’s fascinating stuff – ripe and rich subject for drama. And the Bridewell Theatre, lurking down a side street in Blackfriars, is an undiscovered gem. A former swimming pool, it houses a well-equipped theatre, a cosy bar and lots of charmingly higgledy-piggledy corners to discover. It’s got ground-breaking theatre written all over it. This play, while having many elements that shone brightly, is not quite that.
Consolation begins with a woman in glorious French landscape. She speaks poetically, even flamboyantly, of the world around her: Cypress trees paint the skies. She’s been transported by means unknown from 12th-century France; but, all is not as it seems.
Carol, as we come to learn is a 45-year-old single mum who, after a few troubled years, retreated to France to indulge her belief that she was a 12th-century troubadour in a past life.
While ‘stalking’ the Cathar castle of her supposed past life, she meets Raymond, an arrogant actor in the reenactments put on by its visitors centre. Their rocky road to friendship forms the emotional centre of the show.
There is no doubt the performances are excellent. Danny Soloman as Raymond manifests a pitch-perfect French accent and just the right amount of cocky charm and swagger, while Holly Joyce, as Carol, neatly balances vulnerable, emotionally damaged woman with cheeky wit.
The pair do great work early on keeping the audience engaged as the play drip-feeds information and jumps around different aspects of their stories. But the storytelling feels too tricksy and fractured. And, although, all the strands are cleverly pulled together by the end but, it takes a massive three hours to get there – albeit by way of witty exchanges, humourous mistranslations, and theatrey in jokes.
There’s also a lot of French, which is perhaps unsurprising given the nature of the production, but did feel alienating for this monoglot anglophone. I’m sure it was funny, though, lots of people laughed. Along the way we also get booming voice-overs, visitor centre video and Skype conversations with Carol’s son and his girlfriend – charmingly played by Tom Grace and Nathalie Barclay – appearing on a huge screen, which is also wheeled around as an additional prop.
The production values are high and the set by Rūta Irbīte is quite ingenious. A series of crates moved around by the cast members gives us a garage, a castle wall, a computer desk, among other things. Yet iit’s a device that feels overused. The constant deconstructing and reconstructing of boxes in some scenes adds little except to increase the run time and maybe even steals intimacy away from the drama.
There’s some excellent and risky-looking fight sword fights choreographed by Dan Styles which show off a great deal of technical skill. There’s an amazing and dramatic reversal near the end that builds to lovely emotional payoff for Carol and Raymond. It’s a relief to have the plot condensed to one point and, although the disjointed nature of the storytelling makes it hard to pinpoint the moment of Carol’s awakening, it’s a does warm the heart.
There really is a lot to like about Consolations, even if less would have been more.
Director: Natasha Wood
Writer: Mick Wood
Presented by: Theatre Voliere
Booking Until: September 4 2015
Booking Link: sbf.org.uk