BWW Reviews: WRETCHED an Engaging Tightrope Walk between the Whimsical and Macabre at the NAF
In A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, Khaled Hosseini writes: 'A man's heart is a wretched, wretched thing.' As the house lights dimmed at the start of the Juicy Collective's WRETCHED, those were the words that whispered their way into my mind after reading the National Arts Festival blurb about the show, which lets the audience know they are in for a 'quirky romance' that will reveal how 'love can get a little messy'.
When the lights came up, WRETCHED indeed began to tell a quirky love story, one created by director Neka Leigh Da Costa in collaboration with the cast. A man (Jeremy Richard) and a woman (Claudine Ullman) fall in love after a meet-cute, get married and begin to build a life together. Through various ups and downs, they manage to leap over the hurdles that life places in front of them - until the woman suspects her husband of infidelity. What follows is where the wretchedness of this narrative makes itself felt, as the piece shifts from pure whimsy into something approaching the grotesque.
It is in the way that this transition is handled that WRETCHED flounders a little in its tightrope walk between the charming and the macabre, although otherwise the play was a refreshing take on an age-old theme. Using clowning, mime and shadow work as disciplinary foci worked well as a springboard for narrative and character in the play, investing what could so easily become clichéd with a compelling resonance. But the moment when a real heart appears on stage, one's investment in the piece is challenged. Nothing leading up to that point - neither in Jo Glanville's beautifully layered costumes nor in the highly stylised set design - prepares the audience for what consequently seems like an intrusion into the world of WRETCHED, something that wrenches one out of the drama instead of pulling one deeper inside it. This transition is a key one and is completely necessary for the story being told with regard to where it needs to go, but it needs to be negotiated either more or less sensationally in terms of style as well as from a place that exists within the landscape of theatrical languages employed in the narrative prior to the heart's late appearance in the play.
One of the strongest features of WRETCHED is its cast. Jeremy Richard and Claudine Ullman bring the man and woman around which the narrative revolves to life vividly, playing neatly into the heightened style demanded by the multi-disciplinary approach to the storytelling in the piece. The performance plays, like a silent movie, in juxtaposition with live piano music by Tony Bentel, who punctuates the action with accompaniment from a range of musical styles, most memorably popular tunes from yesteryear by the likes of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Hoagy Carmichael. The music underlines the whimsy of the proceedings, with Porter's "True Love" underscoring the central physical motif of the piece. The ensemble work between these three performers is tight and keeps the piece moving forward, with an effortless sense of action and response flowing between them.
Hosseini's musing on the wretchedness of the heart concludes by saying: 'It won't bleed. It won't stretch to make room for you.' Ultimately, WRETCHED leaves the audience knowing that hearts do bleed and that should any stretching be required, the power lies within us to start shifting our heart-spaces. The powerful final image of the two actors as they make visible the metaphor of invisible mending, with both its hurts and hopes, is one that will endure long after the lights have faded to black. That is where the value in seeing WRETCHED lies, in the secret about life that it shares in its last moments - and it is one worth being reminded of.
WRETCHED completes a four performance run at the Masonic Front at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown tonight (7 July) at 22:00. Tickets are available at the National Arts Festival website or at the door. The show is accessible to multilingual and deaf audiences.