Hackney Wick, with its workshops, derelict factories, squats and artists’ studios, provides a suitably post-industrial setting for If what I hear is true, a new short by Indian theatre-maker Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas. This play in two acts promises ‘contemporary reflections on T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and opens on a nightclub scene which fills The Yard theatre’s cavernous warehouse space with thumping house music, ecstatic dancing, lasers and strobe lighting.
Outside the club we meet Maria, a distressed young woman who is suffering from either a nervous breakdown or the effects of too many poppers. Played convincingly by a twitchy, elfin Caroline Williamson, she encounters a sage-like homeless man called Rizla (Kal Aise), pontificates about the stars, finds a lost child, and is menaced by various sinister, hooded night-crawlers. Bird song and sympathetic lighting create a persuasive sense of time and place, but the skeleton script, slow pace and repetitive tropes fail to lift us anywhere new or especially interesting.
In Act Two we switch location to a beach in Sri Lanka. Jay Quinn is impressive as Clive, a holidaying lawyer in swimming shorts whose poetic monologues dart between melancholia, resignation and desperation. Kal Aise, who doubles up as Clive’s stoner beach buddy Carlos, is less compelling but does provide welcome moments of humour. Some interesting narrative threads appear, then disappear (Clive’s musings concerning the ethics of war in Sri Lanka seemed particularly promising), and his interactions with various characters and memories, including an ex-girlfriend, feel frustratingly under-explored.
The Yard is an exciting new theatre, and this production makes good use of its atmospheric, rough-and-ready stage. The lighting and sound design are superb in places, and the massive video projections by Arran Shearing which cover the entire back wall of the theatre are effective. DeBiswas is most successful in his creation of arresting visual symbols. The abandoned child is represented beautifully by a tiny pair of empty trainers, whilst the principal characters are repeatedly splashed with water, evoking both rejection and purification.
The ensemble work fluently together, but I found some of the dance and physical work predictable and too long. Gratuitous use of strobe lighting and dry ice in the nightclub scenes compounded my sense that this production relies on its impressive technical/multimedia toolkit to paper over an underdeveloped script. A tauter rendering might have created the space and focus for a more fulfilling exploration of the themes of the play: regret, the loss of innocence, and isolation within what Maria calls ‘the tall world of factories and adventures’.
Each act of If what I hear is true is announced portentously with a quote from Prufrock – Eliot’s great early poem of regret – but this link is never fully realised. I think Eliot would have admired the ambition of this piece of theatre, but found its execution lacking.