Acted in an appropriately claustrophobic Barron theatre, Bryony Lavery's More Light promised to be a challenging play. Its script is didactic and declamatory. Additionally, the narrative is highly unconventional and unsettling, based around a group of imprisoned concubines resorting to cannibalism to survive. These two facts alone make great demands on the performers and the audience. So I thoroughly commend both the audacious vision of director Michael Laird and the obvious skill of those with whom he was working, actors, set and costume designers and animators alike. Yes, you read that right, animators. One of the most striking and well executed pieces in the play was the elegant opening animation provided by Ekaterina Andreev. Though marred by the sub-Enya soundtrack, it set the scene with a series of suitably Sinic line drawings. Most interestingly, this segment was a great example of how other media might be incorporated into the theatre.
Indeed, the first half of the play went from strength to strength. As the concubines slowly adapted to their new, perverse freedom, their performances slowly changed. At first, their blocking was organised almost like a dance routine, with straight, unnatural lines giving way to more naturalistic grouping later on. The acting, suitably, was precisely gestural and almost stilted (though not to its detriment!). These elegant and harmonious stylistic choices contrasted well with the obvious savagery of their situation. Reduced to eating their Emperor, they soon devolve into eating all the other men trapped in the tomb. However, such acting, especially when the guise of the concubines' formality begins to disappear, is very challenging. It requires the performer to subtly demonstrate emotive reactions alongside moving within a proscribed framework, essentially negotiating between artifice and naturalism.
Whilst I feel that the efforts of all the cast members were admirable and commendable, some of the more minor characters, whose character psychologies are obviously less developed, struggled somewhat to find their own interpretation of that style of acting. This was hardly a problem for the leads though, which makes me wonder if it was more a problem with the script than the actors per se. Akaina Ghosh put in a superlative performance of quite startlingly emotional complexity. Though she was the first to suggest the women eat their formal master, her doubts and pangs of guilt were apparent at every stage. She possessed a disturbing dignity throughout the play and proved an inspired choice to play the titular role. Mandarr Brandi should be similarly lauded for her sinister control, which suggested an individual who was frighteningly desensitised to the horrors around her. The macabre comedy she added was a welcome, if unsettling, respite from the near-constant tension.
Unfortunately, most of the problems seemed to lie in the second half. Most notably, the intensity seemed to drop, in both the performances and the narrative. More Light is very much a play which wears its themes on its sleeve, so to speak. Ideas such as the value and meaning of art, and what it is to be a woman aren't so much explored as stated. The controlled precision of the first half suited this style of dialogue quite well. In a more naturalistic second half, the performers struggled somewhat to communicate the ideas credibly. At parts, it felt like the characters themselves did not believe what they were saying. The erratic and violent Tyler Anderson was an interesting presence, his speech a combination of emotional pleas and sinister snarls. However, he lacked a sinister or threatening quality. He seemed to play the role as someone who needed a hug, not a depraved prisoner. Maybe this was the directorial intent, highlighting the vestiges of his humanity, but if it was, it mitigated the tension between Ghosh and Anderson somewhat.
This being said, the play was an undoubted success. Any weaknesses in the production were not fatal as the stellar acting of a few, and the notable acting of many, comfortably carried the show. In its uneasy sexuality and disturbing demonstration of human regression, More Light was a thought-provoking and darkly entertaining production. Its bold ingenuity is, I think, an encouraging sign for St Andrews' theatre. So we should hope to see many more good things from the director and all those who helped him put on this original, if not perfect, show.