You must see this. Beautifully written, imaginatively staged and performed with total focus and energy, The Poetry of Exile is a sure fire success – and a hidden gem.
It’s difficult to know where to start with The Poetry of Exile, other than to reiterate the sentiments of my strap line. It was sublime. Essentially perfect. The writing, acting, staging, movement, set, lights and sound all blended together as one beautiful entity; not a stitch in sight. When I left the theatre, I bounced gleefully back into this confused and socio-politically complicated world as if an existential weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Such profundity in a piece of artwork deserves a lot of high praise and exposure.
I entered the auditorium of the White Bear to see on the traverse stage what I would compare to the TARDIS console room referb’d by Victor Vasarely. A black and white, geometric puzzle box with two wide landscape canvases on both walls, one completely blank and the other depicting a glorious green hillside with the icy peaks of mountains in the distance. This was all lit with a wonderful mix of LED and UV, in rich purples, light blues and greens. Food for thought already. During the course of the play, this space served as the character’s prison of ordinariness. For it is their tragedy (for all except perhaps Robert) that they must only see beauty and true bliss as a far off image, through a painting on the wall.
The lights suddenly started to flash and dance and the cast swarmed the stage dressed in long rain coats and wielding binoculars. A voice-over accompanied their restless and frantic search, a small passage from over the speakers detailed the severe lack of mental health awareness within our society. Then all at once the sequence came to an end and we were left with our two female leads in a very traditional domestic setting: sipping red wine and discussing their rather disappointing marriages. In my usual fashion, I was furiously jotting down points of intrigue or particularly thought-provoking lines. But half way through this scene, I realised that this was an exercise in futility as the dialog and acting was so witty that I couldn’t take my eyes off the action for a moment.
Peter Hamilton, the writer, is an established playwright in the fringe theatre circuit (with such plays as Basildon and Bridlington) but perhaps nowhere near as widely regarded in the theatre world as I feel he should be. Anyone watching can instantly recognise that he has an exceptionally seasoned hand. Every beat of this play ticks along in such a seamless succession, every single moment keeps you enticed and head over heels in love with his characters. The domestic side of the story is very traditional “Menage a tois” (with a non-participant quatro on the side). Lynn, sister of Josie, is trying desperately to have a baby with her husband Robert. But Robert refuses to take a fertility test on religious grounds. Josie suggests to Lynn that she copulate with Josie’s own partner Greg, in order to “keep it in the family and all that.” The plot rings a familiar bell in my ears and I don’t know why, but in any case it all marvelously sets up the mundane religious hypocrisy in which Robert (the quatro) is trapped. It is from here we discover that deep inside Robert is a burning passion for “Chinese Wilderness Poetry,” a plot device which makes way for intense philosophical discussion within The Poetry of Exile. Peter Hamilton has created something beautiful in the arc of the character Robert. Without giving anything away, his story is a pursuit of happiness. And a very relatable one at that. He, like many people, has an overactive imagination – wishing to become more driven by the desires of his soul than by the mundane tasks of his day to day life. The three other leads, Lynn, Greg and Josie act as one entity, a three headed manifestation of his “a thousand ties to life.”
Director Ken McClymont has demonstrated incredible vision with regards to his staging of Poetry of Exile. The staging is full of tiny nuances, like Robert reaching down to open a imaginary “little gate” and Lynn’s subsequent tipping over the edge at the sight of it: “But I don’t see a little gate.” It demonstrates the fundamental difference, so definitely, between the two characters. Two separate worlds, both with entirely different expectations and aspirations. As Ken said to me after the show, as he waited at the bar for his well earned pint, Lynn’s world is one of “no imagination.” No imagination at least in regards to Robert’s intense experience. I hold Ken McClymont in high regard for the depths he went to show us that contrast between the worlds, in a way that made it both familiar and surreal.
All of this theatrical magic could only be possible with the breath-taking performances given by every single actor. Another clap must go out to Ken McClymont for casting; every actor is totally engaged with their role and is truly believable as someone who could exist in the real world. But such is the talent of these actors that they can bounce from melodrama, to surreal and even to dance with the snap of a lighting cue. Charles Sandford as Robert gives a performance that sneaks up on you. You do expect there to be a very generic arc in the piece; the dis-associative white collar man that goes wild and slowly descends into madness. But Charles’s performance helps to remind as that madness is something that is gradual and unnoticeable at first, such is the way with real life conditions. In the mind of Robert, he truly believes in his new found philosophy of solitude and the audience is with him every step of the way. His complete dedication – with a stiff and awkward physicality and a very precise idiolect – makes you fall in love with Rob. For is free in a way which many creatives desire to in the real world. Charles has a background in physical theatre which makes way for a heightened intensity in the more surreal moments. Carla Freeman as Josie was another one of my highlights. She wore this smile that was almost fixed to her face, as if she was constant fear of letting out her inner emptiness. This made it even more effective when she finally took off this mask in her more vulnerable moments. Carla was also incredibly funny with her bad French, anecdotes about red wine and her admittedly quite charming view on life. Channeling an energy and a patois akin to Russell Brand, with a little nod to Beverly from Abigail’s Party.
This play showed me, with elegant flare, the value of our soul’s desires. And in turn, how difficult it is to balance these desires with our day to day lives – especially when the world is becoming a more and more frightening place. The Poetry of Exile is beautiful, wonderful, breath-taking. All of the positively driven adjectives.