You Need Me’s previous piece, Certain Dark Things, was a claustrophobic production set in Bilbao during the years when Franco was still in power. It was an evocative piece of storytelling, which elegantly conveyed a sense of heat, both emotional and physical. The company’s new play is similarly ambitious in intent if not quite as satisfying in execution.
Death Song is set in 1980s Nevada. Paulina, a young Mexican girl and her overprotective father, Juan, live in a trailer park on the outskirts of Las Vegas. He keeps her on a tight leash and is always warning her about straying beyond the perimeter fence. The day-to-day detail of their lives together are economically but effectively evoked through a repeated scene, rewound and re-watched, a captured moment. This becomes important when the narrative flashes forwards seven years and it becomes apparent that Juan is now in prison, desperately trying for one final appeal before facing the death penalty.
The company’s characteristic awareness of detail is also evident in the sound design. The sound effects are created live, the performers using foley techniques to create the noise of coins being dropped into slot machines, pebbles skimmed into rivers. It’s incredibly well synchronised and effective, giving a sense of richness to an otherwise minimal staging; as in their previous productions, there’s also Greg Hall’s live cello accompaniment, adding another atmospheric layer.
As adept as they are at creating a sense of the novelistic on stage, this time around the company – made up of Basque, Catalan and English actors – feel constrained by the space. Whereas Certain Dark Things was staged in-the-round under a vaulted Underbelly ceiling, the current venue is more conventional in lay out. Attempts have been made to fill the room, to allow the production to escape the stage, and scenes often take place in and around the audience – at one point two of the performers even scale the seating bank as if it were a hillside, clambering over the audience’s heads. A number of scenes play out on the stairs and a series of conversations are carried out with one actor standing at the back of the room while another remains on stage, but while this is a successful way of marking out the shifts backwards and forwards in time, it’s physically awkward to watch, requiring the constant swivelling of heads and craning of necks.
The peripheral nature of life as an immigrant is successfully evoked and Emily Watson Howes’ production keeps the audience guessing to the end but though the last scenes are suitably raw, they’re also hurried and abrupt. The company work extremely well together, there’s a strong sense of rhythm and rapport, with Miren Alcala’s Paulina standing out in particular, but this time around they feel hemmed in, limited; Death Song, ironically, seems in need of more room to breathe.