Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Olga's Room - review

Written by: Elodie Vidal (@ElodieVidal)

Arcola Theatre, London

Many stories can be made of a person’s life. In portraying communist militant Olga Benário-Prestes, who was gassed during WWII, writers often privilege her political heroism, or her romance with revolutionary leader Luís Carlos Prestes. Olga’s Room, on the other hand, takes a wider angle: that of a human being whose choices have led to imprisonment and torture. Split between memories of the past and the present struggle for survival, Dea Loher’s play paints a picture of courage in a dark, oppressive atmosphere.

Photo: Elyse Marks
Speaking in Tongues’ production of Olga’s Room commands unease and anxiety from the start. Designer Matt Sykes-Hooban traps the audience alongside the prisoners by dividing the claustrophobic space of the Arcola Theatre’s Studio Two into three areas: in front of a wire fence, two decrepit bunk beds standing for a cell, and a chair marking an interrogation room; behind the fence, lamps casting dull shadows over a deserted corridor. In such a hopeless environment, even symbols of tenderness - such as the baby clothes young Genny embroiders for Olga’s unborn child - arouse despair, and spectators connect with the characters in spite of themselves. The main source of audience involvement, however, is the acting.
Photo: Elyse Marks 

Bethan Clark’s performance is riveting. Shoulders tensed up, eyes darting in all directions, she conveys emotions ranging from eloquence to anguish, taking the audience on a journey while standing as their reference point. Pete Collis seems a bit unsure of his character, Filinto Müller, as his emphasis on the torturer’s calculated charm often clashes with his accesses of violence; in the end however, the character’s sadism still shows through loud and clear. Ceridwen Smith plays the destruction of Ana’s psyche with such intensity that her performance is likely to stay engraved in the audience’s minds. Her appearances, made all the more disturbing by the brilliant makeup, causes eyes to widen in horrified fascination. Lastly, Sheena May’s portrayal of Genny makes the play bearable, her innocence bringing in a breeze of fresh air, and even nervous comic relief.  

In spite of the strong performances, Olga’s Room can feel a bit wordy. The many similes and metaphors of the original German text, preserved in all their poetry by translator David Tushingham, sometimes come across as verbose. On the other hand, a different style of language is to be expected from translated theatre, and James Smith’s skilful lighting guides the audience through the sea of words, marking chronology and location through variations in light and colour. In the end, Olga’s Room is too dark to be called entertainment, but it sure makes for a poignant, captivating piece of theatre.

This production runs until 26 January 2013. 
@ArcolaTheatre @SITTheatre 

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