You can’t write that! This is the premise of this play. Elaborately crafted as a wedding, with amazing props — a floral arch, a guest book to sign, balloons everywhere, glitter balls, fairy lights and some audience members even got given drinks as guests. Yet, we are in a dystopian setting — although we watch a wedding unfolding, when they start to make state oaths, something more sinister is afoot. We are in an illegal play, in peril of our own lives and the imminent threat of potential arrest from the state authorities. None of us should be here, but we are…and on with the show…
In this play within a play (within a play, within a play), Micheal Ward was a writer who can’t stop writing what he hears, verbatim. Which can be awkward for all concerned and has career and personal repercussions for him and his work. Tanya Reynolds was the new ‘girl’ to the job and trying to avoid any trouble, including her boss (Jonny Lee Miller) falling for her. Both Ward and Reynolds were former soldiers, in a militaristic state which has banned books. Suddenly the play within a play…is putting on a play as they draft in a state approved writer (Geoffrey Streatfield) to censor/edit the writer’s productions. Only he writes down exactly what he sees them all doing and saying…and Jonny Lee Miller has an illegal stash of banned books stashed under the floorboards which he starts sharing with Tanya Reynolds, hoping they will bond over Shakespeare’s greatest quotes.
Shockingly the play within plays is occasionally interrupted as the watch sounds the alarm and all the play props have to be hidden as we go back to the wedding, the vows and the Best Man’s song. At one point we, the audience, provide the legit cover as we say the state approved oath at the ‘wedding’. The interruptions prove to be false alarms and back we go to the theatre.
Astoundingly the play(s) end in a state raid as we are all put under arrest and face giving our statements and ID cards, which goes beyond breaking the fourth wall. Aaron Neil’s state official rebukes the actors as he reveals who they really are and how they’ve been mining real events for drama. Making us consider where does satire begin and real life end? Whilst his character had much for us to feel unsympathetic towards, he was remarkably moving in his short appearance on the stage, and we could really feel his pain, rage and hurt.
I’ve never seen such a detailed set up before, it was truly impressive. The wedding setting was beautiful and there was much to be enjoyed and wondered at. As well as all the decorations and the audience being ‘guests’ at a wedding, a huge state oath was hung on the wall and scrolled on a screen, along with the wedding details. In a stripped down performance, a state badge hung over the stage and the small cast moved props around, turning a desk into a trench and a war zone. In writing in detail about recent history, his neighbours, truth and what the state wants its people to believe, the writer is on a dangerous path — like Romeo and Juliet, with the lovelorn literature appreciating future state leader unleashing the full horror of the state upon the tools of his trade — his hands. (More like Titus Andronicus or all of Jon Webster).
Such a treat to see Jonny Lee Miller on the stage — and it’s not every day you get to share a thumbs up with a legend as he checks on his ‘guests’ in full making sure the wedding is going smoothly mode. The theatre space and indeed the audience was utilised well and it was ultimately a work of imagination — with Jonny Lee Miller turning the lights on and off.
Whilst it suffers in the beginning from some unnecessary shock value explicit images and language and Tanya Reynolds character is made to feel more and more uncomfortable, it was worth staying with as suddenly the script jumped ahead and became much more interesting. Multiple plays within plays! It doesn’t always get there, but it has so much to say about state controlled art and culture — even if you give the people what you think they should want, they don’t want it or enjoy it. Should the state try to control writers and if it does, what does that do to art and culture? Do we want truly free speech and if we do, or we don’t — what does that look like? Who decides what stays and what gets edited out? What does it look like to live under state control of the media, and arts and culture? Is it offensive if it’s true and really happens, even if it is offensive? What does it mean to write with truth and is everything suitable for being written about for public consumption? Can or should a state control thoughts as well as arts and culture and media? Can it? Sam Holcroft’s A Mirror gave us a horrible flavour of this when state control goes too far and starts banning and burning things, then people. Meanwhile, people’s thoughts will keep leaking out.
Equally powerful was the acting out of a war zone scene by two former soldiers was powerful, as was Jonny Lee Miller’s increasingly tender soon to be state leader getting excited about banned literature, then exploding into rage as he discovers his new colleague doesn’t love him. Equally powerful were the prison scenes because of the means that the main characters had ended up there, and the life-changing decisions that Jonny Lee Miller’s powerful man now had to make. Like it or not, everything was going Shakespeare, even leering into Jacobean revenge mode.
Tanya Reynold’s character came into her own (finally) with some rifle drill and in approaching the writer with her own motivations, as well as her illicit joy in literature. What to take away from this? Words, literacy, literature, art and culture are powerful things, and we need to take care with freedom and with state control. Deeply character driving, it’s a play to make you think, and as you file off facing ‘arrest’ having been berated by Aaron Neil’s official in deep disappointment at our attitudes and behaviour. As the writer showed, utter freedom where the literal thoughts and actions of others are on the page for all to see are awkward, and may lead us to cry out for an editor or a curtain call. And yet it is the truth…
Much to cogitate on and the end plight of the characters leaves you with deep emotions and compassion, A Mirror is an absorbing and engrossing drama. Aaron Neil also has the best end line in a play!