I always felt an affinity with Alexi Kaye Campbell. He was born and grew up in Athens (like I did) and I idly like to wonder whether our paths has crossed and could he be one of the older boys we fancied from afar at the english speaking school next to mine? Which is an excuse to reminisce about teenage crushes but has little to do with plays (if you discount the fact that almost all artistic adventures start as teenage crushes). But I digress. The point is, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s work gives me a tingle of anticipation, not only because he is one of the most intersting modern playwrights, but also due to our common roots (and he would know exactly what I mean when I talk about this).
Bracken Moor, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play, is named after a fictional (as far as I can tell) moor in Yorkshire. It’s set in the cavey drawing room of a mansion in the 1930s, a mansion built next to a coal mining community. The play is co-produced by Shared Experience, whose previous successes include Mary Shelley, and all these elements start to paint the picture of a gothic morality tale. In fact, it is a gothic morality tale of private tragedy and public responsibility brought to life with elegance, precision and visceral enthusiasm. Try to resist spoilers, the less you know the better.
Polly Teale, Shared Experience’s artistic director, directs with a fine eye for naturalistic detail and treats spirituality as a tangible sweat-and-grime experience. Set, costumes, lighting and language have strong earthy qualities which add heart-thumping urgency when the characters are pushed at the edges of human experience. Private tragedy takes centre stage but poverty and struggle for survival are present and always picking around the edges. Why do we care for the pain of the few when the lives of many are at stake?
At the centre of the tragedy, Helen Schlesinger’s Elizabeth suggests unbearable paralysing pain but also strength and lust for life that can, and will, propel her forward. Daniel Flynn, as her husband Harold, finds empathy and truth in a character who persistently makes the wrong moral choice. Sarah Woodward’s Vanessa is winning in her feelings of earnest friendship and loyalty even if the character shows little insight. Antony Byrne’s performance as John Bailey and Dr Gibbons has a great earthy quality that brings life and fresh perspective in a stuffy old house.
I had more problems with Joseph Timms as Terence. Initially he comes across as a provocateur whose fake righteous manner is not balanced by charm or intelligence. When the character moves to a different realm, the performance was much stronger and engaging. Much of the story’s credibility rides on this character and it could well be that the performance will find its right tone in time. The jury is still out on this one.
Tom Piper’s set, all dark wood, leather and shadows, has the opulence and heaviness of big houses full of secrets. The outside world, all rain, mud and wind, whistles through people’s souls. For atmosphere and visceral thrills, play and production are hard to beat. Around the edges, the residue of economic depression, poverty and the upcoming war lingers. Private tragedy is a ghost of a moment to be swept away.