In a way that is becoming a trademark of this young company, four performers are standing in a line narrating the prologue to their story, together, cutting into each other’s sentences, catching and supporting each other, competing gently for their favourite lines. They all clearly know all the lines of their play, and, as I watch them I am thinking of Shakespeare who, because of the technological limitations of his day, used to write individual parts for his actors, leaving the cast in ignorance about the rest of the story, and causing them to be genuinely surprised with what went on on stage in the course of the live performance.
But I am slightly surprised that it has taken 500 years for us to realize that actually we don’t still have to have parts in the Elizabethan sense of the word. Writing is much easier to distribute nowadays and rehearsal periods are much longer too. Anyone who has ever been in a rehearsal room will know that the most exciting moments happen when things are being done for the first time, when the actors can still maintain their presence in the room partly as themselves and partly as their characters, when uncertainties and unplanned eventualities can still keep them on their toes.
The secret of Barrel Organ’s success as a company is that they have found a formula to keep this sense of the unknown in their live performances while also knowing the entire play intimately well. The casting is decided randomly, with the audience’s help, for each performance. And even though, after a while of watching them in action, you simply cannot believe that this particular casting permutation has not been rehearsed to the finest detail, that is just not the point – the point is the extent of their theatrical inventiveness.
I like to describe Barrel Organ’s work as ‘New Writing meets Forced Entertainment’. The writer Lulu Raczka’s script is often fragmentary – a series of interweaving monologues written with a strong sense of dramatic character and a great way of depicting the problems of her generation. But the ensemble, led by director Ali Pidsley, seem to have it as part of their rehearsal methodology to come up with a series of games they can play in the course of performing the text which will form transitions between scenes, keep things real for the audience, and pitch the actors’ energies at the appropriate level for each successive moment in the overall shape of the piece. Thus the dramaturgy of the piece is not determined by the plot of the ‘play’ but by the ensemble-work itself – not unlike a chamber orchestra score.
In this respect it is not even crucially important to know what the play is about. (If you must know, it concerns a young woman, an unemployed young graduate, who – as the prologue will tell you – is one day arrested for breaking and entering into someone else’s home.) But you should just go and see how the story is told – I am certain that in the years to come you’ll be glad that you did.