29 January 2012

Count Oederland at the Arcola Theatre

There was something about the description of Count Oederland that attracted me when I first saw it advertised by the dates were problematic so I left it. Then a weekend became free and I managed to get to the penultimate performance. Lucky me.

The Arcola has changed a little since I was last there. The front of house has been cleared of clutter with the box office and kitchen now in their proper places.

It's good to see a theatre that was already good getting better. The cosy and welcoming feel that it has is one of the reasons that I trek across to the other side of London to go there.

I also love the theatre space itself and the way that each director manages to find something imaginative to do with the unusual staging.

For Count Oederland we had a minimalist white dais on which a few pieces of furniture were added to turn the space in to a study, a prison cell, a hotel reception, a villagers' hut, a grand residency, a sewer, and other places besides.

There were many people to fill these many places with some of the large cast of ten playing several roles.

Several of these are cameo roles that appear for one scene, make their point and then are never seen again. One of my favourites is the clairvoyant who is asked by the prosecutor's wife to try and find her missing husband. He prances about the family house with extravagant gestures and mannerisms that bring the likes of Gok Wan to mind.

And there were many themes and ideas in play too to make it a rich and absorbing experience. This is a play that warrants study and watching again.

Put simply, a public prosecutor is driven by stress and his current case to adopt the persona of the axe wielding Count Oederland of legend.

In doing so he gathers a following of troubled minds that becomes an uprising.

Despite being written in 1951, it is hard not to make comparisons with the Arab Spring countries but that is because of the timelessness of the themes.

Ten years ago we would have thought that is was about Russia.

There are lots of connections in the play. The main one is between the public prosecutor and the Count and this is complemented by the two maids with similar names (and played by the same actress), the axe which is first used by the prisoner, and a model ship that threatens to become real.

The scenes flash past as the story covers a lot of ground. Those that stuck with me the most as they did so were when the prosecutor adopts the legend of the count and a flash of red light indicates his first use of the symbolic axe, the deposed minister realising that her world has been turned up side down when nobody comes to take her empty plate, and the baron's callous treatment of his supporters as the face drowning in the city sewers.

The pace of the play varied nicely too with the brisk rebellious action interspersed with a few Shakespearean soliloquies gave us insights in to some of the characters and their motives.

This is especially true of the prisoner who's story parallels that of the Count. He is in prison for a motive-less axe murder of a colleague, gets pardoned and sleeps with his victim's wife.

The feeling when the end comes is a confusion of thoughts, a release of emotion and sheer admiration for what we have just witnessed. This was a faultless production of a challenging yet approachable play that inspires, questions and shocks. This is exactly what I go to the theatre for.

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