BWW Review: MARATHON, Barbican
If you go to see Alan Fieldan with JAMS' (which presumably stands for the names of the four actors, Jemima, Alan, Malachy and Sophie) Marathon at the Barbican, you'd do you well to remember an illuminating part of the blurb about the show.
"This is theatre for a generation engulfed by the fog of information in the digital age, where the storytelling is disrupted, never fully taking shape, as our narrators try to recall an event."
Forget it at your peril. Without this knowledge to root down the meaning of the action playing out on stage in this black box of a theatre, and on witnessing apparent non-sequiturs like someone sticking their head in a bucket or eating a banana, you'd be forgiven for supposing that the makers of the show threw everything at the production to see what would randomly stick. It seems best to relax into the fact that this is a play, rehearsal, event and performance simultaneously. And at the same time it is none of those things.
There is, however, a kind of logic underpinning this winner of the 2018 Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award. Channeling the story of how a messenger ran from Marathon to Athens in Greece to tell the king of the Greek defeat of the Persian army. Here, the players don't so much try to recreate the myth as refract it through the prism of the discombobulation many people feel at this moment of the 21st century. The message to the corrupt king in this case is: "We've lost the war, the enemy is coming."
People in close proximity to the frontline seem to be unaware of the conflict, let alone the imminent arrival of the victors. If they are aware, they are so blasé about the situation that it bewilders and frustrates a young woman who is herself taking part in a bizarre speed dating session. Communication is fragmented, hit and miss.
And yet, repeatedly, bodies are dragged away from the battlefield, fireworks go off like grenades, dry ice fills the auditorium like smoke in a war zone, and the cast's clapping mimics the sound of marching soldiers crunching snow underfoot.
A gun to the head ISIS-style execution of a hooded actor kneeling before a white screen is enacted as if it is being filmed. There are even those foil blankets used to warm refugees scattered across the stage. As if to drive the point home even more pointedly, a neon red nightclub sign spelling the word 'corpses' is lowered and raised.
Through long pauses and silences that tend towards bagginess because of the lack of tension, it gradually becomes apparent that Jemima, Alan, Malachy and Sophie are trying to rehearse an improperly recalled past performance of the show. The details emerge randomly and hesitantly within this collective amnesia.
This is either a comment about humanity's ability to forget the horrors of war and repeat the violence ad infinitum, reflecting this generation's struggles with lack of political will. Or perhaps it is a comment on the lack of focus and fragmented memories that are a consequence of this era's obsession with the internet and social media.
JAMS is a group of young International Artists who utilise live music, pyrotechnics and devising methods to create unpredictable and experimental theatre. It all brings to mind Five Days in March by Toshiki Okada/chelfitsch, which is also characterised by a seemingly flimsy narrative, very colloquial dialogue, and the imminent threat of invasion to capture the irony and impotence felt by young people in Japan today.
Unlike Okada's gripping tour-de-force, Marathon misses the mark somehow, perhaps because it lacks focus, and struggles to attain and maintain emotional satisfaction. Ultimately, it feels like it is more rewarding for the excellent actors to participate in than for the audience to watch.
Photo credit: Barbican