War, huh, what is it good for? Writing plays about, if the National Theatre’s new season of four short plays by four playwrights new to the South Bank venue is anything to go by.
Three of the quartet are concerned, in one way or another, with the realities of human combat; whether it be the absurdity of an actual conflict situation in Tom Basden’s There Is A War, the covert resistance movement in Sam Holcroft’s Edgar And Annabel, or the psychological effect of the fight between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka in Prasanna Puwanarajah’s Nightwatchman.
Only DC Moore’s pub-set The Swan is entirely free from the looming spectre of war, instead focusing on the hour before a wake is held. Moore draws audiences in with chirpy pub banter and chat before slowly exposing the delusion at the centre of the regulars’ lives when the truth about Trevor Cooper’s likeable Jim is slowly revealed.
Edgar And Annabel, which precedes The Swan, is a very different affair. For a start, the auditorium is completely rearranged. Rather than having the audience seated on the edges of a delightfully detailed South London pub, it finds them staring, head-on, at a sterile house, in which a couple read a scripted conversation. The reason for the scripting swiftly becomes clear: it is not because the performers are under-rehearsed, but because the characters are themselves playing characters, hoping to avoid detection from a Big Brother-like government against whom they are secretly rebelling.
Holcroft’s set up invites comedy as one thing is said while entirely another is played out, or while a particularly tricky engineering job is conducted while houseguests drown out any suspect noise by singing 80s power ballads. In amongst the politics and the subtle questioning of normality, the most touching aspect of Edgar And Annabel is the growth of a relationship between two characters thrown together against their will.
The second double bill begins with Puwanarajah’s monologue, Nightwatchman, which finds a British Sri Lankan female cricketer (Stephanie Street) having one last practice session before making her debut for England against Sri Lanka. As she slowly warms into the session, the weight of history, family and identity that sits on her bat-swinging shoulders slowly becomes apparent as Puwanarajah dives head first into the politics surrounding the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Street, ballsy and chippy in pads and an England vest, single-handedly controls the stage for around an hour with the help of a few fantastically effective tricks from the NT’s technical team.
Basden’s There Is A War offers a real contrast to the single-handed Nightwatchman, bringing a changing set and large cast onto the stage as Phoebe Fox’s doctor Anne tries to make her way through a bizarre war zone to help at a hospital. Basden revels in exposing the absurdity of conflict, with pointless torture, confused conflict, scenery that makes the warriors look like borrowers and a finale that brings home the pointlessness of it all. The most openly comic of the four pieces, it may also have the bleakest denouement.
Presented as two double bills – Edgar And Annabel and The Swan, Nightwatchman and There Is A War – Double Feature is staged in an excitingly rough backstage area of the National Theatre, worth visiting in itself. The novelty of the space invites possibility and invention, which the directors Polly Findlay and Lyndsey Turner, and designer Soutra Gilmour, have grabbed with both hands.
With a bar in a cage ‘decorated’ with tools on the walls, a cavernous feel to the space, the intrigue of walking into a completely different auditorium for each piece and four playwrights making their National Theatre debuts, the overriding feeling of Double Feature is of something new, experimental, risk-taking and exciting.