BWW Reviews: THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, Riverside Studios, January 25 2011
The sea is an implacable foe - it just keeps on coming at you (as Cnut found out all those years ago) - but The Old Man is determined to do battle with it one last time with a giant fish the prize. Despite advice from The Young Boy - his sole companion after his wife's demise - The Old Man, driven less by hunger than by the need for a last confrontation with the femme fatale that The Sea has become, sets out and is soon literally and figuratively out of his depth. Alone, far from land, he wins a pyrric victory over his adversary, landing the biggest marlin ever seen, but the fish is a carcass, cruelly stripped by sharks on the journey back to land - The Sea's nuclear option, ruthlessly deployed. Back with The Young Boy, nothing has changed, but The Old Man has been testes and can rest, ultimately, in peace.
Laura Casey directs Rob Young's adaptation of the Hemingway novella on a spare set on which three actors circle each other, locked in a danse macabre over the (unseen) corpse of the marlin. Day passes into night and back to day, accompanied by eerie, watery sounds, conjured by the actors from props and, well, water. Vernon Kizza Nxumalo plays The Young Boy as a South London street kid wannabe, a native of the fishing villages of Cuba. Bored by the routines of his family and friends, he is fascinated by The Old Man's fascination with The Sea, fearful on his behalf, but unable to resist the sheer balls of The Old Man's determination to take on his adversary yet again after 80-odd days of failure. As The Old Man, Bill Hutchens captures his world-weariness and his grim determination not to lose again to The Sea. There's much mime in Mr Hutchen's work: fatigue, pain and will etched on a body kept afloat as much by his mind as by his tiny boat. Emily Bevan is seductive, cruel and funny as The Sea (everything Elizabeth Hurley should have been but wasn't in the ill-fated 2000 remake of Bedazzled) taunting, blackmailing and, gleefully, defeating The Old Man. Ms Bevan's performance allows us to understand why The Old Man had to return for one last battle and why we would do it too - a piece of casting critical to the play's success.
In the Riverside's Studio 3, this production provides a contrast to Salad Days' winning silliness packing them into Studio 1, serving more of a fringe audience (the production was first shown at the Brighton Fringe Festival), but such contrast is what institutions like The Riverside Studios is all about. If, like me, you grew up with Tarkovsky movie double bills at The Scala Cinema, the hour or so intensity of the play is a mere bagatelle and rewards the intellectual investment with stimulating version of a twentieth century literary classic.