Phil Morris casts a critical eye over a production of Matthew Blake’s Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found at the Hijinx Unity Festival.
Theatregoers who suspect that productions involving disabled artists might lack in aesthetic quality and creative daring are advised to see Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found. This latest collaboration between Hijinx and Punchdrunk Enrichment couples a dark and compelling exploration of lost memory with a Kafkaesque depiction of corporate bureaucracy and boardroom infighting. It is a smart and sophisticated show in which a cast of disabled and non-disabled actors work seamlessly with a hugely talented design team to create an atmosphere of unease that is vaguely nightmarish yet not without occasional humour.
Audience members are invited to journey through two levels of a Cardiff antique store – the exact location is revealed in a post-booking email – and assemble their own understanding of the narrative from overheard conversations, museum-like displays of artefacts with explanatory pieces of text, and hidden workspaces in which the employees of the nebulous Fo[U]nd corporation toil away in darkness and simmering resentment. The story centres on a secret elixir that extracts the essence of memories that lie within items traded by Fo[U]nd Corp via its network of lost and found stores. The elixir is able to provide its consumers with ‘a hyper-real dreamlike experience’ in which potent memories are recovered and relived, and its ownership becomes the subject of a battle between sinister CEO Col Bogel, played with formidable presence by Gareth Clark, and his disgruntled workers.
In all frankness, the long shadow of a shady corporation is something of a common trope in immersive and site specific theatre, and it is the least interesting aspect of Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found. If you want to tour a corporate work place in which dreams are sold to a docile population by employees who participate in mass-manipulation then a real life visit to Disneyworld would provide a more potent example. Where this production excels, however, is in its site-sympathetic use of space and antique objects to render a strange and tawdry memory palace suffused with the musty aroma of loss.
Designer Julie Landau’s basement set is rich in disturbing detail – a back office in which hundreds of pairs of glasses and bags of old clothes are sorted by a desk-bound flunkey is ominously evocative. Special mention also goes to Lighting Designer Ceri James, who balances the subterranean gloom of the basement factory with suitably icy hues in the boardroom and laboratory areas. This production is a sort of sequel or reboot of 2014’s Beneath the Streets, which was nominated for a Theatre Critics of Wales Award, and the murky atmospherics are considerably enhanced by the relocation from Castle Arcade to its new site.
The cast of Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found are tasked with establishing a corporate hierarchy that is malevolent yet credible, rather than playing fully realised individual roles, and they achieve this aim with an impressive ensemble discipline and restraint. Hijinx offers the only professional performance training in Wales for actors with learning disabilities, and it was gratifying to observe members of the Hijinx Academy performing in a piece of such disturbing intensity. Disabled artists should be encouraged to explore the full range of the human experience and not patronisingly confined to only uplifting stories with positive outcomes. Under the adroit direction of Matthew Blake a cast of learning-disabled, physically-disabled and non-disabled actors create a world in Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found that is darkly magical in its depiction of dystopia. The final scene is troubling and tragic, but it gives way to the strains of Barbra Streisand and the audience is slowly led from the venue into welcome evening sunshine.
This bold collaboration with Punchdrunk Enrichment clearly demonstrates that the term inclusive theatre is not indicative of a less valid form of theatre for which certain ‘allowances’ have to be made. Beneath the Streets: Lost and Found stands on its own artistic merits as a theatrically powerful and challenging piece of experiential storytelling. Hijinx is undoubtedly doing work of great social value, it is also making a distinctive and important contribution to the ongoing debate about what theatre is and can be in Wales.
This show runs until July 3rd and a limited number of tickets are still available for purchase via Chapter. For details of the complete programme of the Hijinx Unity Festival, including free shows, workshops and a whole weekend of free performances in Cardiff City Centre, go to hijinxunity.org.uk
(photo credit: Simon Gough)
Hijinx Theate Co. & Punchdrunk Enrichment
Unity Festival 2015
Undisclosed location, Cardiff
Phil Morris is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.