Actors have it easy, right? Learn a few lines, put on a costume and pretend to be someone in front of an audience for an evening – I mean, it’s Easy Street! Well, let me tell you, that is not the case in The Ballerina. Dominique Izabella Little and Edward Nkom commit to their roles.
Colin (Little) is a diplomat, or maybe a ballerina, or maybe something else. In an unnamed French-speaking African country, she is held in a stress position with a hood over her head in a dark dingy room. VAULT Festival’s Cavern venue works perfectly as the background for this. Pacifique (Nkom), a high ranking member of the country’s authoritarian regime, repeatedly tells her “We know who you work for” and interrogates her about her real job, and her real motives.
Nkom is impressive. He’s funny and charming and intensely charismatic but dangerous; very dangerous. He carries himself with a sense of untouchable power. The back and forth between the two is intense, Little is equally impressive and leaves us undecided either way: is there something more to her and her job, or is she innocently caught up in this after setting up a music festival? The contrast between the two characters’ positions allows the actors to really get into their roles and square up against each other.
Writer Anne-Sophie Marie, uses their back and forth to highlight colonial treatment of Africa (and other countries). The play points to the hypocrisy of the West, with references to Front National in France, Brexit in the UK, Trump and the Electoral College in the US, demonstrating issues those countries have with democracy. Who is right and who is wrong, and who gets to decide? The West set up and supported any number of corrupt governments and regimes around the world; is it any wonder there are issues for those countries and their people these days?
A few things about The Ballerina feel like it might be a work still in progress. The scene transitions are too fast, in particular when we are meant to see time passing with Colin held in her cell. Voices are too quiet at occasional moments as the full length of Cavern is used. Towards the end, there is some whiplash in tone, and it almost feels like stepping into a different play as Colin makes a last confession that brings in a backstory about an incident in college and a suicide. It’s almost going off track and losing focus.
In an exceptionally strong scene, the interrogation turns brutal, unsettling and memorable. Little is cable-tied – visibly tightly – placed onto a flat table and then waterboarded by Nkom. Yes – waterboarded. While of course there must have been practice and precautions, there was enough real for Little to splutter up a visible amount of water. This was only about halfway through, so in the already cold Cavern, she carried on soaked to the skin and cable-tied to the end.
It is a bit hard to follow that by saying that I enjoyed The Ballerina – it feels like the wrong word. But I did enjoy the show, it absolutely engaged me throughout. There is a lot of talent involved and the two central performances are superb. I can easily see that with a little more work and fine-tuning this could turn into an excellent piece.
Written by: Anne-Sophie Marie
Directed by: James S Barnes
Lighting & Sound Design by: Magnus Westwell
Set Design by: Katja Larsson
Fight Direction by: Josh Cavendish
Produced by: Khaos
The Ballerina plays VAULT Festival until 5 February 2023. Further information and tickets can be found here.