BWW Review: PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET at #NAF2016 Represents Significant Development for Hungry Minds Productions
PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET is the first original play from Hungry Minds Productions, written by Katya Mendelson and Kiroshan Naidoo in response to the refugee crisis that has been the result of the Syrian civil war. An armed conflict between multiple belligerents, the war is not the focus of the play itself, which examines rather the effects of war on the people who have to fight it and live with it. This new play grapples with important issues and represents a significant development for this young theatre company, whose debut production, PEOPLE ARE LIVING THERE, made its bow at the National Arts Festival last year.
In PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET, a family lives in hiding from a war that is being waged all around them. Isa works tirelessly to ensure the survival of his brother, Sidi, and their grandmother, Aya, sneaking into the city to search for food. Although the family has strong bonds that tie them together, it is clear that Sidi is struggling with his life underground, often hearing the voices of demons among the boots that march above their heads. Tova, one of Isa's childhood friends, is shot in the leg during a skirmish, and he brings her to recover in their bunker. Tension runs high as differing opinions about the war are expressed by the four characters, although they manage to agree that they need to plan an escape from their oppressive existence. But as their inter-personal conflicts begin to tear this tightly knit group apart, whether or not they will be able to put their plan into action is called into question.
Mendelson and Naidoo have created a compelling script that shows incredible promise. Their writing is sometimes a little sketchy in providing exposition, which sometimes shifts the characters' dialogue into rhetoric rather than speech that reflects distinct psychological states of being. With the multi-faceted issues surrounding a conflict like the war in Syria being largely (and sadly) foreign for some local audiences, a little more context on, say, the various ideological positions assumed by the parties involved in this kind of war, the military use of children and the struggles face by refugees as they attempt to escape their circumstances, could help to illuminate the characters. The script works towards a thrilling climax, although the beats of the ending need to be fleshed out for the sake of clarity, which may also have been compromised by the timing of the technical effects in the final sequence. The development of PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET will be interesting to follow with its first run under its belt, as it is a meaty piece with a great deal to say on the worthy subject matter of contemporary warfare.
Naidoo himself takes the role of Isa in his play, delivering a convincing performance as a man whose approach to living life gradually shifts as the action of the play moves forward. Also impressive is Ameera Conrad as Tova, a brutal performance that is free of the posturEd Mannerisms that hindered her work earlier this year in DOCTOR GODENSTEIN'S MAN.
Kathleen Stephens works hard to bring a much older character whose life experience is far beyond her tender years. Although she manages not to slip into caricature, the psychological weight of age is missing from her performance. As difficult as it might be for an emerging Production Company like this one to convince an older and more established actress to sign onto a brand new play, this is one role where everything should be done to make this happen.
As Sidi, Roberto Kyle Meyer is perhaps the least successful of the quartet, struggling to land the early scenes which involve him experiencing a fractured life, ostensibly caught between a fantastical mythology and the reality in which he finds himself. He needs to work on a more specific history of how he his perception of the world was shattered in this way so that the behaviour seen by the audience feels like less like a performance and more a way of being.
With the dialogue flying thick and fast during the play, all four actors could take a little more care with their articulation, especially given the incredibly wet acoustic of the Glennie Hall where PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET is performing during its National Arts Festival run.
Blythe Stuart Linger co-directs PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET with Mendelson. There is an excellent sense of the trajectory on which the play travels. The staging, on a circular set bordered by sand that Linger designed in collaboration with Naidoo, keeps the tension between the characters at boiling point throughout the dialogue scenes, with the action punctuated by pantomimed sequences in blue light that help to vary the rhythm of the production and communicate the passing of time. The design supports the direction and performances well, creating an entirely compelling world inside the circle of sand. The costume designs, by Gail Stacy with assistance from Olivia Galley, heighten the characters so as to make them exist seamlessly in the environment around them.
Hungry Minds Productions has set themselves an extensive set of objectives as a theatre Production Company, all of which can be read on their website. In the space of a year, they have gone from producing one production at the National Arts Festival to juggling three on the same platform. While this has perhaps not given the company enough time to flesh out each of the three pieces completely, there is a clear sense that Hungry Minds Productions is open to exploring what they are, and this particular production seems to encompass their mission statement best. This initial production of PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET builds on the foundation laid by PEOPLE ARE LIVING THERE: the company and the individuals that make it up have grown in their artistry. I look forward to seeing this piece grow even more.
PEOPLE BENEATH OUR FEET at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on 2 July. There is one remaining performance tonight at 21:30. Bookings are through the National Arts Festival website.