The latest play from Canadian playwright extraordinaire, Judith Thompson, Enoch Arden in the Hope Shelter combines poetry and music to offer us a brief glimpse into the lives of those we only notice through the corners of our eyes. Taking as starting point Richard Strauss’ 1898 melodrama Enoch Arden, itself based on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1864 poem of them same name, Thompson has written a contemporary story that suggests art as haven from harsh reality.
Enclosed between sickly green shelter walls, Jabber tries to awaken Ciel from her catatonic state by recounting Tennyson’s story of the love triangle between three characters, Enoch Arden, Annie Lee and Philip Ray. Ciel responds with Strauss’ music, and as the play unfolds, she is brought to life in small bursts, but we sense that this is only temporary – art moves her, but as soon as real life imposes, she will again descend into inertia. At the same time, Jabber seems to confuse the story he is telling with his own life and it is difficult to discern what is Jabber’s and what is Tennyson’s.
Director Jenny Salisbury has secured the UK premiere of the 2005 play and it is strangely appropriate that it should be performed at the Rosemary Branch. It is a tale of longing and misfortune, of people with great inner lives trapped in an uninspiring space, the same way as we, the audience, and they, the theatre company, must make do with an uninspiring space in which our imaginations must take flight, in spite of the thumping sounds of the music from the downstairs pub. It is always disturbing when unrelated sounds interfere with a theatre production. This Londonista spent the latter part of the first act of a play, which shall remain nameless, being confused by the distinct sound of a dog barking, only to walk out into the foyer in the interval and find, yes; you guessed it, a large dog roaming the theatre. But we digress.
Johnny Vivash gives a good performance as Jabber; boisterous yet vulnerable, carrying the weight of the play on his shoulders. He performs what is to all intents and purposes a 75 minutes monologue, taking on three different characters along the way. Canadian musician Kristin Mueller-Heaslip, reprising the role she played in Toronto, gives a largely mute performance and yet manages to give an earthy quality to Ciel.
This is an interesting play full of wonder and melancholy. While the production itself does not always manage to lift off (on the night that we visited it bore traces of premiere jitters), there were plenty of laughs to be had, and plenty of touching moments between Jabber and Ciel. Small theatres like the Rosemary Branch deserve kudos for daring to give a chance to unknown plays and producers – even though they ought to get their space soundproofed.
Enoch Arden in the Hope Shelter at the Rosemary Branch until 8 July. Ticket information here.Image courtesy of Footpath Productions