14 January 2014

Woman in the Dunes at Theatre503

Woman in The Dunes was only on for five nights and I was free for one of them so I made a late decision to pop along to Theatre503 in the borderlands of Clapham and Battersea to see it.

I was hoping for something unusual and it was.

The play opened with three figures in sackcloth ropes telling us about a teacher who disappeared and after that we met him and learnt what happened to him.

He had taken a bus to a remote desert location to collect and study insects only to miss the last bus back. The villagers who were watching his strange, to them, behaviour offered him a place to stay and he accepted. From the very beginning they spoke of this as a permanent arrangement but be kept correcting them and said that he would be leaving tomorrow.

The village was built in deep holes in the sand to protect them from the wind. The only way down was by rope ladder and once this was pulled up there was no way out again.

In the house he met the woman in the dunes. She was busy digging sand out from her house, it fell from the walls of the pit constantly, and she asked him to help, the villagers had kindly provided him with his own spade for that purpose.

He was trapped, though it took him a while to realise that, and the rest of the play was an examination of his response to being trapped and the reasons for it.

There was a story to the play but, rather like Animal Farm, that was not its point. The play made me think about the role of work, structures in society and how we adapt to new situations.

Work was the main theme.

The sand that was dug out of the houses was used to make (poor quality) cement and this paid for the food, water and other provisions that were passed down to the workers from their masters above - these were confusingly called the Union though they bore no relationship to trade unions in the UK.

The mood of the play was dictated by the clever set. Sackcloth covered the walls and floors to represent the ubiquitous sand and there was some real sand on the floor too. The clever bit was the sound-track of continually falling sand. It felt as though I was at the bottom of the hole in the sand with them, especially as I was in the front row (as usual).

Another nice touch was the way that they handled the vertical aspect of the pit. The front-right of the stage was the top of the hole and the ladder ran from there to the front-left. So, for example, when the teacher first climbed down to the house he crawled right-to-left across the stage while on the right one of the Union at the top of the hole looked down (actually down, not to where down was pretending to be) and the woman in the sand-house looked up. That may sound a little complicated and/or weird but it worked well.

There was a cast of just three Felix O'Brien (the teacher), Roslyn Paterson (the woman) and Niall Kerrigan (the Union) and they all did a sterling job of maintaining the mystery and the mood.

Most credit must go to Micha Colombo who both wrote and directed the play. It was based on a novel by Abe Kobo but neither the book nor the author were known to me so I cannot say where the creative boundaries were drawn.

Woman in the Dunes was an immersive dip in to a strange world. There normal things happened (like working) but were given an unusual perspective by happening in this strange world. These new perspectives made the play intellectually rewarding and the strange world made it interesting.

I loved it.

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