We are ushered into the theatre by a stern sounding ‘guard’ and given the barked instructions “not to disturb the prisoner”. The Barron is as bare as ever, save for the ‘prisoner’ sitting silently on the floor: Harriet, Duchess of Buckingham (played by Helena Jacques-Morton). Of course we don’t know who this is yet, but before the play has properly begun the atmosphere is already grim and dark, and sets the tone for the rest of the performance. The identity of the prisoner is revealed once it begins, and we learn of Harriet’s impending fate and the events that led to her imprisonment.
The time in which This Breathing World is set transports the politics of Game of Thrones into an Orwellian, dystopian future… only with less incest. Set in the mid 1400s A.E. (after earth), the stage is not a medieval backdrop but instead one dominated by a futuristic dystopian empire. This Breathing World is told mostly as a flashback, revealing the reasons behind Harriet’s imprisonment. It begins in the midst of political turmoil which Richard (Tyler Anderson), brother of the current Emperor, Edward, wishes to take advantage of in order to usurp the crown. He approaches Harriet with an offer of a position of power in a new regime under him, as well as an opportunity to revenge herself on the people who ordered her unhappy marriage to Katharine, played by Sophie Klasan. Harriet agrees despite her misgivings, and this is where the story spirals into morally questionable depths of deception, oppression, and murder.
Richard’s rise to power is enabled not only by Harriet’s actions, but also by his eventual wife, Anne (played superbly by Mallini Kannan); who is also widow of the previous emperor’s son, whom he had killed. The seduction of Anne by Richard is a scene that should definitely be noted and is a wonderful demonstration of Kannan’s acting abilities. Sir William Catesby (Alex Freeman), and Dr Shaw (Robbie Leeson) -a character compellingly funny, yet creepy in his perpetual silence- both aid Richard from the shadows. Rachel Horrocks plays Lieutenant Robin Brackenbury, and the imperial announcer is voiced by Alice Shearon.
This Breathing World is a student written play produced for the SAND festival. Catriona Scott, director and writer, bases this play heavily off Shakespeare’s Richard III, and in my opinion, does a good job of presenting a unique take on dense and complex source material while ensuring that it is accessible to the audience. It is not a rehashing of Shakespeare’s work, but rather a well thought out yet faithful interpretation of the play.
At around two hour’s run time (including interval), the play is lengthy for a student-written production. While condensing such complex source material this much is admirable, it erred just a little on the lengthy side. And at times dialogue not completely integral to the key plot was slightly rushed and therefore difficult to understand, especially in the supporting roles.
There were no faults in the casting; Kannan’s Lady Anne is the most convincing, portraying the uncertainty and emotion of her character. She is a compelling, yet not necessarily dominant, presence in scenes. Jacques-Morton gives a strong performance as the female lead of the play. Her strength lies in her vocal delivery rather than physical presence and she portrays a vast range of emotions well. Anderson’s Richard is subtly manipulative and soft in manner, yet powerful when required. He hides Richard’s deformity behind the clever nature of Richard’s dialogue, placing his power in speech. Against the two strong leading ladies however, Anderson was at times overshadowed. Overall however, the three were commendable performances, complemented by the efforts of the supporting cast.
The Barron actually provides a decent venue for the play. The bare walls of black paint and pipes running across the wall in fact add to the dystopia feel. Less is more, just like the simple dark costumes of the cast, with added touches of relevant jewellery alluding to the War of the Roses and a deity called the ‘All-Seer’. It is a grim play, but not one that you would regret watching. It ends ambiguously, one of the key differences from the source material, but on a note of defiance and even hope.