'A truly absorbing, clever and new piece of theatre'.
The space felt completely transformed upon entering into Stage One for Open Theatre’s production of ‘Swallowing the Whale,’ written and directed by Andie Curno. Stage One, which typically boasts raked seating and a large end on stage had been altered so that the audience sat completely in the round. Seated on a mish mash of chairs, sofas and beanbags adorned in blankets, the audience were invited into a new world before the play had even begun. The stage was littered with pieces of paper, and each corner held a piece of furniture to be used throughout the piece. Suspended from the ceiling above the stage, was a huge structure of a whale skeleton which imposed itself on the piece.
‘Swallowing the Whale’ follows the story of Marlowe (Hannah Whiteway and Cam Griffiths) as they come to grips with themselves and their relationship with best friend April (Lucy Yellow). The play starts at their first meeting, admiring the looming whalebone skeleton on a museum visit and bonding over the love and hate of marmite sandwiches. It’s hard not to immediately like the characters of both April and Marlowe as they capture the childhood innocence of instant friendship. But Curno’s script also adds a second dimension to this story of friendship by using two actors to play the character of Marlowe, who swap seamlessly between the internal and the external, Whiteway and Griffiths portray simultaneously the actions and speech of Marlowe in real time, and the inner dialogue of thoughts and feelings in their head. Although this initially took me a moment to get my head round, the result of such a bold stylistic move meant that as an audience member, you felt as if you were in Marlowe’s head, this was their narrative, and their story.
The play was superbly acted throughout. Whiteway and Griffiths brought their own nuances to the character of Marlowe, despite playing the same character. Lucy Yellow was a force in the form of April, you loved, disliked, and felt for her character all at the same time. The strong ensemble was rounded off by Billy West who played Levi, Marlowe’s love interest and a catalyst in April and Marlowe’s degrading relationship. I particularly enjoyed the soundscapes at the beginning of each act where the actors spoke over each other reading and reciting from the paper cluttering the stage, it felt like the entryway into Marlowe’s brain and sucked you out of your own reality and into theirs. There were also moments of excellent direction from Andie Curno and Ginny Davis, I admired how set pieces were built out of the stage, a sheen of blue cloth pulled out of a set of drawers became a river, the wooden chest became a late-night drinking spot for Marlowe and Levi. This combination of stylistic set use, direction and writing meant it all felt believable, despite not being realistic. The expressionistic style adding to the fracturing sense of truth overwhelming Marlowe’s brain as the play progressed.
The play itself felt both extremely simple and extremely complex. Although essentially about the intense friendship of Marlowe and April, by offering us an insight into Marlowe’s internal dialogue Curno complicated the premise and portrayed how complex and confusing such friendships can be to a young person when coming to grips with their own identity. The script was jam packed with metaphors and imagery, so beautifully written that it often felt I was watching a piece of spoken poetry. Because it was so dense in language, I sometimes found it hard to grasp what was external and what internal within Marlowe’s world, however what the writing style did achieve was an honest and true representation of just how meaningful even the most meaningless moments can be, and feel, at a young age.
Producers Ellery Turgoose and Amy Cregor along with Lighting Operator Kate Matthews aided spectacularly in pulling off this feat of a show. Meticulously chosen lighting states and even the use of floor projections felt like you really were viewing everything from Marlowe’s head and created a sense that all this was happening at once, in a flurry of memories of emotions that neither Marlowe nor the audience could completely make head or tail of.
The whole production of Swallowing the Whale was gorgeous, from set to lighting, to acting, direction and writing. All came together in a stylistic and polished piece which seemed to hold such emotion and importance to each member of the cast and crew. I loved how open ended the piece was left, leaving each audience member to make their own individual connections and therefore carve their own, unique meaning to what they’ve been shown. A truly absorbing, clever and new piece of theatre.
Words: Julia Brookes
Photo credit: Abby Swain