BWW Reviews: THE SWELL a Fantastic Metaphor for Identity, Trauma and Transformation

Zanne Solomon as Marie Walters. Photo by Maggie Gericke
Zanne Solomon as Marie Walters.
Photo credit: Maggie Gericke

Imagine watching Lewis Carroll's Alice chat to the Caterpillar for an hour. That's a good place to begin imagining what THE SWELL, the play collaboratively created and presented by Horses' Heads Productions and Fruitzalad Productions, is like. Continue by switching out those two characters for an assessor from an insurance company and a woman who identifies as a mermaid, and finally juxtapose Carroll's whimsy with Samuel Beckett-style existentialism. If that fusion sounds like it will appeal to you, then THE SWELL will be just up your alley. Scripted by Genna Gardini, THE SWELL is also well on its way to becoming a meaty little piece of theatre, making use of a fantastically clever metaphor to explore its themes of identity, trauma and transformation.

THE SWELL begins by introducing Marie Walters, a woman who spends her days in an inflatable pool. Apparently a mermaid who has lost her tail, she is visited by Howard Fawls, who has been sent by an insurance company to investigate the situation and assess whether Marie should be compensated for her loss. The two circle around one another edgily, bantering about folklore (notably the legend of Mami Wata and the Sirens of Greek mythology), psychology, the practice of identity and the effect of trauma. The focus by the image of the swell: of waves that do not break, of gathering emotions and of something that grows until it is too big to be held. No matter its source, or what kind it may be, every swell breaks at some point, and that moment of transformation is the stuff of wonderful theatre. Gardini's writing creeps in like the tide, moving towards a revelation in the narrative that represents such a moment, but it is in capturing the consequences of that moment and its final resonance where THE SWELL needs to work towards transcendence. Its current ending feels hasty, which subverts the power and perspicacity of the piece.

BWW Reviews: THE SWELL a Fantastic Metaphor for Identity, Trauma and Transformation
Shaun Acker as Howard Fawls
Photo credit: Maggie Gericke

THE SWELL is performed by Zanne Solomon and Shaun Acker. In creating their respective personae, Solomon and Acker both present figures that are more archetypal than individual. Both characters are transformed by the experience of their meeting. Solomon captures Marie's development better than Acker finds Howard's. Acker perhaps hides Howard's insidiousness too well under the fidgety veneer he has contrived for the character. Solomon, on the other hand, negotiates the shifts in the script well, but would really only be able to do justice to the character's double transformation - both having been moulded by the will of others - with more solid writing in the dénouement of the piece.

Direction and design for THE SWELL are by Gary Hartley. He develops a good sense of rhythm in his direction for the piece, but could develop a keener sense of Marie's isolation in both his direction of the actors and the design. Using only a plastic pool in the black space of the theatre stimulates a sense of openness, when it is the literal and figurative claustrophobia in which the characters are caught that makes the play speak, the contrast of the setting and Marie's memories of the boundless sea being one of its paramount motifs.

THE SWELL has great potential, not only to be an intellectual meditation on the big existential questions of contemporary existence, but also one is deeply moving. There is something unique about Gardini's writing and the way it comes to life on stage, a style and appoach that could easily see her work, as well as that of Horses' Heads Productions and Fruitzalad Productions, find a home alongside other independent theatre collectives like the Rust Collective and the Pink Couch.

THE SWELL, which carries an age guideline of 13, runs at the Alexander Bar Theatre Upstairs from until 6 December 2014, where it will run at 7pm nightly at R90-R100 a ticket. Tickets can be booked at the Alexander Bar website or purchased at the door.

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From This Author David Fick

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