There’s a wonderful part in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum where the narrator, Oskar, tries to tell us about his friends in Nazi-occupied Poland. “Once upon a time,” he begins, “there was a musician named Meyn, and he played the trumpet too beautifully for words.” But Oskar finds it too difficult to tell. Again and again he tries different variations, each beginning with “Once upon a time”, and it soon becomes acutely clear that certain things can’t be put into words.
A very similar conceit recurs throughout One Last Thing (For Now), Lilac Yosiphon’s heartfelt play about long-distance relationships during wartime. “There once was a man,” starts one character, only to be interrupted by a louder one (“No, there once was a woman…”), before the eight cast members of Althea Theatre each launch into their own story, only to realise they can’t – there’s just too much to tell.
This doesn’t mean there’s no point in trying. Communication is presented as an ineluctable part of the human condition, regardless of time, place or culture. Yosiphon was inspired largely by wartime love letters, but she wisely includes email and Skype in her anthology of humans trying to stay in touch. The play doesn’t focus on a particular war: familiar tropes from World Wars I and II mingle with vignettes from the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Western invasion of Afghanistan, the Vietnam War and, as one character pointedly calls it, the recent “conflict” in Colombia. Althea Theatre itself is openly diverse – three of its actors hail from Colombia, Greece and France, and most of the rest are from various parts of England – but this isn’t post-Brexit gimmickry. Their play is three years old this year.
The globalistic set-up of the production, including the fact that occasional chunks of dialogue are spoken in foreign languages untranslated, means that the unity-in-diversity theme can be explored without having to be spelt out didactically. It’s best expressed physically: in the play’s earliest moments, all eight cast members move almost as one organism, and around the halfway mark when one of the characters asks “Which is the way to the war?” the other seven coalesce into a spiky object, all pointing in different directions. It’s a pity the company’s lithe physicality wasn’t on display more consistently – it was too frequent for us not to notice, but too rare to allow the play to transcend its dialogue-based roots.
Nonetheless, Yosiphon’s tactile direction leaves us with some memorable images. In one brief scene, two lovers, bathed in warm golden light, waltz while reading each other’s letters; in another, humans become furniture and an office full of people on computers is conjured up with nary a prop in sight. There are no sets as such, but there is a backdrop: a network of sheets of yellowed writing paper which, unevenly lit, look phantasmagoric.
In a play with so many scenes, there are bound to be some missteps. One brief World War story tells of the love between a French damsel and a German soldier; it knows it’s a hackneyed trope, and so resorts to dialogue such as “I am fighting for the clear silence before the dawn.” But knowing you’re a cliché doesn’t excuse you from being one, and it feels incongruous in a play that takes so much trouble to give its characters interesting dialogue and situations. Another strand concerns a girl who wants to send her “touch” to her lover on the front, so she cuts off her hand and mails it to him. Things don’t quite go according to plan, she cuts off her other hand, and when the handless lass finally meets her legless lover, it’s risible rather than moving. There are some dodgy accents too (the otherwise rather watchable Thomas Wingfield was especially but not exclusively guilty), which feels odd in a play whose global reach is so pronounced.
But most of the vignettes are beautifully constructed. I was particularly struck by one that involved not lovers but the growing bond between a pacifist teacher and a young, passionate IDF recruit. The cast really throw themselves into Yosiphon’s sensitive, ambitious script: Cole Michaels, who exudes intensity, and Elizabeth Stretton, a gifted comic actress with real depths of emotion, deserve particular praise. Katerina Ntroudi and Carolina Herran also make an impact. But the play is very clearly a team effort, and all the actors, who are unafraid of holding eye contact with us, involve their audience very effectively. They’re proud of their project, and for all its flaws, they’re right to be.
One Last Thing (For Now) is on at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 25th March 2017. Click here for more details.