BWW Reviews: BETWEEN Startles and Unsettles at Alexander Upstairs
That most intimate of Capetonian theatre venues, the Alexander Upstairs, is currently home to the professional premiere in South Africa of Oskar Brown's play BETWEEN, an intense exploration of human relationships, heartbreak, heartache, love, lust and social performance. With its origins as a student production at the University of Cape Town, the play has grown and travelled, notably being performed at the Dublin Gay Theatre Festival, where it was nominated for writing and acting awards. Now the play is back in South Africa for a short while, before once again travelling abroad, this time to the Brighton Fringe Theatre Festival later this month and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August this year.
In BETWEEN, three stories linked by a central male protagonist are told. One narrative thread recalls his adolescent memories, in which two friends discover the wonders of adolescence; the second tells a tale of love deferred, in which two men find themselves growing apart; and the third unveils the emotions wrapped up in an intimate lecturer-student relationship, brought to the fore through the teaching of Shakespeare's sonnets. With its sense of spiritual awakening, its angst-ridden contemporary archetypes, the play's multiple linguistic registers and its heightened intensity, BETWEEN feels like a piece of classic Expressionist drama. Brown's script darts neatly from scene to scene as the web of circumstances surrounding his unnamed hero's current situation is spun before the audience's eyes, telling glimpses into a past that have an undeniable impact on the present. At certain turning points in life, people make the choice to open up or shut down their connections to other people; it is these moments that Brown explores to startling and sometimes times unsettling effect.
Brown himself performs in the play as the protagonist, alongside Nicholas Campbell who plays his teenage mate, his estranged lover and his student. Campbell inhabits all three roles splendidly. He plays the teenager and the lover, both masterful manipulators, with a sense of raw volatility, and instils within the student a sense of ponderous frustration as he works out both the sonnet he is meant to deliver as well as what the next step of his personal journey is. Brown's task is different, playing one character at different points in his life. He is most successful in the flashbacks to his teenage years, where he is delightful in his reactions to the situations in which he finds himself, and heartbreakingly sad in those delivered in the moments of that narrative thread's climax. He has a tougher time with the older versions of the character: although he manages to shake off his own youthful brio in favour of a mix of quiet detachment and existential neurosis, there is still some potential for settling into the character's maturity, which would provide the scenes involved with more distinct textures and flavours.
Geoffrey Hyland has done a wonderful job in capturing the emotional journey in Brown's script and bringing it to life with these two actors. His focus on their playing of relationships gives the piece its edge. He creates moments that feel dangerous, physically and emotionally, and the actors' vulnerability is only magnified by the intimate setting of the Alexander upstairs, with everything playing out just a couple of meters from even the back row of the theatre.
If there is one aspect of this production of BETWEEN that I would like to have seen refined, it was the design. The set looks very much like a portable festival set rather than a defined theatrical world. Although certainly there is some fine conceptual work at play here, the scenic design simply did not feel as fully realised or as organic the action that took place in it.
BETWEEN is likely to find an audience wherever it travels. As a piece of explicitly gay theatre, and a good one at that, it has a built in target market that will find something to take away from its musings on human behaviour. I hope that that is not where it ends though: the very fact that it deals with human behaviour makes it accessible - and just as challenging - to anyone.
BETWEEN runs at Alexander Upstairs on the corner of Strand and Loop Streets in Cape Town until 11 May. Tickets cost R100. Further information and bookings can be made at the Alexander Bar and Café website.