Pros: Lovely costumes, unsettling masks and terrific performances.
Cons: Too much scene setting meant I got lost in unnecessary information, resulting in a play that felt overly long, and saggy as an empty hammock.
The Bridewell Theatre is currently home to Marchland, a season of interdisciplinary events from the in-between places of Europe curated by Théâtre Voliére, an Anglo-French theatre company from Strasbourg. The play Arnika is set in a forest village in the Vosges mountains of Alsace in 1951, where the Fischer and Seltz families are struggling to live with a terrible secret. When a commissaire arrives from Paris to investigate the disappearance of a young resistance operative… well, I’m not quite clear what the results were, precisely.
There is nothing terribly wrong with Arnika; in fact, there is a lot that is terribly right. The actors all do great jobs, despite having to be on stage and sustain vocal soundscapes and positions for long periods. They create the environment through vocals, producing the sound of wind, birdsong and general forest natter, which is startlingly effective. The costumes are colourful and evocative of both era and place.
Arnika is the play’s title, which led me to assume the character of Arnika would be a focal point,
the person whose eyes we’d see events through, whose interpretation would shape and colour the events as they unfolded. This is not the case. Neither the arriving commissaire, nor the missing resistance operative mentioned in the blurb are Arnika; she is another character with her own story. To me, this was jarring as the blurb and the title didn’t merge, and so my expectations were set in the wrong direction. Consequently, I struggled to establish myself within the world.
The blurb gave me the impression of a whodunnit, but there is much more going on. So much time is spent with Arnika, and so much time is spent with the commissaire, and so much time is spent with the other village folk, that in the end, everything feels diluted. The story gets lost in its own words, and it took an effort to maintain focus.
The problem with Arnika comes down to the writing. The first half hour, where the scene and storyline are established, could be done away with; the conversations the characters have could easily paint any picture the audience needs. Equally, the commissaire could have been better used as a device, and have asked the audience’s questions for them. I felt like I was watching a first draft, rather than a finished product.
I can see the sentiments behind the play, the importance of what it is attempting to communicate about the hollowing effects of war that echo down the ages and tear seams in communities, and I feel strongly that theatre should cross cultures and share these stories; after all, that’s how we see how similar our desires and needs and values are at heart.
Marchland will be at the Bridewell Theatre until next month, and will run each February and March until 2020. This season looks definitely worth popping into: there are numerous interesting events coming up, so I do recommend heading down to the Bridewell to check out at least one of them. With their mixture of music, theatre and workshops there’s something for anyone to get their teeth into!
Author: Mick Wood
Director: Natasha Wood
Box Office: 020 7739 6245
Booking Link: http://www.sbf.org.uk/whats-on/view/arnika/
Booking Until: 2 March 2018