Nature is healing: the Orange Tree is putting on new writing again. (And soon? George Bernard Shaw.) Outside is the second instalment of Inside/Outside, a collection of short plays, performed and livestreamed from the Orange Tree. Outside comes as we begin to move (hopefully) away from lockdown and outwards, towards each other again.
Deftly programmed by the OT’s Literary Associate Guy Jones and directed by Georgia Green, these plays draw a thick line between where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Childhood – and recovering from it, and imagining what it could be – figures heavily in all three. Several of the actors are writers in their own right too, and Kalungi Ssebandeke, the writer of Prodigal, himself acted in Blood Knot at the OT.
Zainab Hasan kicks off Sonali Battacharyya’s Two Billion Beats as Asha, charming and bouncy, a master answerer of essay questions somehow in her first ever detention, cleaning off a big spraypainted ‘LIVE’. Battacharyya draws together racism directed at Asha by a classmate, as well as a teacher she thought was on her side, with Asha’s essay research on Ghandi’s weaponising of fasting against attempts by B. R. Ambedkar to award political representation to the Dalits. Her little sister Bettina (Ashna Rabheru) wants help from her too against bullies, but won’t accept half-measures.
It’s dense but playful, and the least static of the three plays: Asha’s relationship with Bettina feels real, both affectionate and at arm’s length. When she assures her that she does like her, you hear it – she’s sympathetic but constrained.
Ssebandeke’s Prodigal focuses on another sibling relationship, this one shredded by time and distance. Kasujja (Fiston Barek) turns up on the doorstep of his sister Rita (Robinah Kironde) having missed their mother’s funeral, sniffing around financially. It’s a script which leaves little unsaid, which is tougher on Kironde’s Rita, who’s given far less to do than Barek’s righteous but incorrigible Kasujja. Prodigal is less concerned with who she is, but she’s hurt and wants answers too: a geographical split in the family made strangers of them both.
We wrap up with a swift and all-too-neat reconciliation between the two, but Ssebandeke’s reason for the rift in this family deals in real and complicated senses of betrayal on both sides, painful and suggestive. The moments Prodigal take away from their exchanges are welcome, when we see Kasujja dance, or watch them move about the flat eyeing each other.
Zoe Cooper’s The Kiss, performed by Temi Wilkey, is the only play set explicitly during the pandemic: it’s a domestic drama of a window-twitcher with too much time on her hands, at home without her primary school teacher partner Soph. Cooper’s writing is highly descriptive, setting us squarely within Lou’s reduced world of the politics of suburban gardens: dandelions, wheelie bin collections and trampolines. Lou’s been made nearly inert by lockdown; her actions to combat this result in a kiss with temporarily disastrous consequences. There’s a glimpse of a different familial future than the couple intended for themselves at the end of The Kiss, as well as hints that things don’t have to stay as they are, with us suspiciously separated from our neighbours.
It’s in this piece Max Pappenheim’s sound is best appreciated, with chirpy then stressful strings. The potted plants of Camilla Clarke’s design find their best home here too, though the Barbican-suggesting slide shape and hanging slab do well for Three Billion Beats’ outside school bus stop, and allow Kasujja to lounge in Prodigal.
Early on the performance I watch is unfortunately beset by technical issues: one actor’s mic in Two Billion Beats drops out halfway through and we strain to hear her, half picked up by the other actor’s. This carries through into Prodigal until the OT halts the livestream to sort things out. It feels pleasantly live, waiting for the theatre’s holding message to disappear, as if we’ve also been unceremoniously paused.
Though the rest of the stream is smoother, Outside doesn’t ever sit too happily under the gaze of the cameras. Maybe to avoid showing us the cameras themselves, full use isn’t made of the OT’s close, in the round setup, with the angles the audience is confined to keeping the actors at a distance from us. We often regard the back of their heads as we listen, and the fades from shot to shot are often off-time from their movements and positioning. It feels as if we’re scrambling to keep up, making me wish for a more reactive filmed version or of being there too, sharing our potentially-infectious breath with each other.
We glimpse this different version of Outside in Hasan turning away as Asha to tell us directly about her doubts about her teacher, but otherwise these remain very much “filmed plays”. This leaves us up against the barriers of the medium, making it harder to take us inside these performances and these words.
Outside is being livestreamed until 17th April. More info here.