Arts Review: STaG Nights – Magic

STaG, Stereo, 18th– 20th November

Rows of black umbrellas hang from the ceiling; cracked mirrors line the walls.  A figure sits on a ladder perusing a book as the audience chats amongst themselves, a busy crowd in an intimate space. Located in the all-purpose venue Stereo, this year’s STaG Nights focuses on the theme of magic, exploring magic in all its wonderful varieties and forms in a series of plays and installations.

The annual festival kicks off with The Boat, a haunting evocation of the life of a fisherman in a world of encroaching modernity. Traditional sea-shanties and the elements of folklore are conducive to the aura of simplicity that surrounds the play: this is a life that embraces ritual and as the play comes to its tragic yet fitting end, the audience are increasingly drawn into the timeless and natural world of the sea.

The Curious Switcharoo provides a change of pace: a seemingly mundane box is revealed to possess mysterious powers that cause the characters to switch personalities at a sometimes confusing and dizzying rate. The actors manage the continual shifts with ease and the play’s humour shines through as the various entanglements are navigated with comedic aplomb.

The first night of the festival closes with Stars in the Sky, a thoughtful piece about a couple struggling with the effects of depression. Well-acted with sincerity and grace, the action is manipulated by the eerie figure of the Magician, who can extract truths that enables the characters of Jessie and Charlie to deal with the difficulties that threaten to engulf them.  The contrast between the meticulously cultivated tension of the silence accompanying the Magician’s physical puppetry and the outbursts of raw emotion creates an atmosphere in which the issue can be explored in all its complexity.

Eszter Jokay and Fiona Hollow’s The Pupeteer is a brilliant start to the second STaG Night.  Loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the play shows the manipulative Prospero and his/her assistant Ariel toy with the stranded Antonio and Miranda. Increasingly surreal as it progresses, The Pupeteer makes excellent use of a strong cast. Lucy Zwolinska’s performance as the bubbly Miranda finds sweet moments for the self-centred character in her relationship with Prospero’s son, Caliban (James Johnson). The relationship is brought about by the manipulations of Prospero and Ariel, who treat the wretched Caliban with nothing but contempt. Anna-Kathrin Linder is quietly engaging in her performance of Prospero’s lines and monologues. Her performance combines with the beautiful, frequently-changing colored lighting to lend the production a surreal feel. This is further aided by a number of short, entrancing physical sequences in which Ariel (Anna Finlay) freezes the scene, pulls the characters up as if on a string, and moves them about the stage.

Between the two plays of the night, Cameron Gibson entertains the audience with a mind-game of a magic-show. Calling randomly chosen audience members to the stage, he asks them to think of a movie, the first person they kissed, or a word – any word… He then pronounces exactly what it is they are thinking of. Sometimes he guesses the answer by asking questions along the lines of “I’m sensing, maybe an A?” At other points the answer is revealed in an envelope written before the show, words as apparently unpredictable as the innocuous “grain”.

Robert Cardew’s Faustus wraps up the night. Adapted from Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, the play is fun right from the start. Faustus (Rebecca Norfolk) is well-read and brilliant, but sells his/her soul to Lucifer (Henriette Laursen) for the ability to conjure. Faustus then spends the next portion of the play in the company of such characters as Envy, Lechery, and Wrath—not to mention the major Tom Jones fanatic, Lucifer—partying and living a life of pleasure, despite the pleas of Good Angel (Michal Sztepiuk). Faustus’s close friendship with Mephistophilis (Miranda Langley), is a major strength of the play. Also of note is the choreographed, stylized debauchery sequence, and the cast’s general portrayal of a friendly, companionable feel, only slightly undercut by their fear of Lucifer.

The closing night of the festival begins with an otherworldly sound installation performed by Adam McCallum, an atmospheric touch that leads seamlessly into the first play, The Magnificent Duo.  Exploring the occasionally fraught yet deeply loving relationship between two brothers, the escapism of the fictional world of magic that they have created shows the potency of imagination, which eventually equips the character of Freddie to deal with harsh reality.

This is followed by Love Potion no. 9, a comedy that chronicles some rather unlikely love matches. Highly enjoyable, the play utilises self-conscious comedy to ensure that the audience is continually kept laughing throughout (not least with the protagonist’s reference as to how much she loves STaG Nights). The hilarity is especially provided by the comedic figure of the witch.

STaG Nights 2014 finishes with Til Death Do Us Part, a play situated in an alternative version of Heaven, in a world that is both well-realised and fully engrossing.  The awkward Death trainee delivers comic relief to the heartbreak occurring elsewhere in the play: Jessie opts never to see her supposedly beloved husband again after his death, and whilst I am on David’s side with his confusion at this development, the bittersweet reminiscences of the beginning of their relationship are poignant in their hope and innocence.

STaG Nights 2014 – Magic certainly delivers on its promise, showcasing the magic of both the improbable and the everyday.

[Rachel Walker (18th & 20th) and Pamela Pearce (19th)]

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