Theatre in Wales

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Tantalising, impressive.. and puzzling

Acqua Nero

Sgript Cymru , Chapter arts Centre Cardiff , March 3, 2007
Acqua Nero by Sgript Cymru Meredith Barker’s new play for Sgript Cymru, the company’s swansong as it is subsumed into Wales’s ambitious Traverse-style new company based at the Sherman, is tantalising, impressive.. and puzzling.

It is, of course, meant to be a mystery thriller and it does, to an extent, deliver on that promise while at the same time tease us with the uncertainty of narrative, identity and the slipperiness of truth. But there are a few puzzles more than necessary: why, for example, does an Italian have a strong Welsh accent, a Welshman an English accent, a German an Italian accent ? Why Aqua Nero rather than Acqua Nera ? How does the central character change from an obsequious corporal to a ruthless killer ? Why does a young woman live in a disused building with her unstable grandfather ?

Maybe these puzzles are irrelevant, maybe they’re red herrings, but they can detract from what is actually one of the company’s most successful productions.

And the play does have a bit of an unsteady start, not so much because we aren’t sure where we are (North Wales ? Italy ? Germany) but, at least on the first night, because of unsure performances: I enjoy uncertainty and ambiguity but I suspect we were supposed to cotton on quicker to the scene of a group of soldiers scrambling to escape as the Americans and Russians advance towards victory, for instance.

That all happens at one end of a long set raked to suggest a steep bank dropping down to an unseen river, while at the other end we have a table and chairs in a semi-derelict factory. We sit either side of the action – presciently, perhaps, in what is known in theatre as traverse staging (hence the Edinburgh theatre of that name) in Sean Crowley’s simple design.

And as each scene switches from one end to the other, we discover one of those soldiers nearly fifty years later in his new life in Wales (and whether it could be anywhere depends on whether we want to read into it allegorical significances about false histories and identity), now an old man suffering from a wound that is clearly more than physical, living with his caring, committed granddaughter.

Our confidence in the production grows when the old man’s son, her father, arrives, because Phil Ralph as Paul takes command of the action, putting in the sort of nervy, intense accomplished performance we recognise from his recent one-man show Hitting Funny for Volcano, and despite confident portrayals from the like of Mike Hayward, Eiry Hughes and Daniel Hawksford, he becomes the pivot of Simon Harris’s production. Paul is, like his father (it transpires) on the run with unpaid debts, secrets and a guilty conscience: can Isabel, who is almost too good to be true, redeem the family’s inherent status as the lost people ?

The questions of who these people are, what they’re doing here, who are the violent intruders, what are the noises off, how did the family get from that riverbank in a defeated Germany in 1945 via Italy to West Wales in 1992, are never fully resolved – and nor would we want them to be. Meredith Barker’s first play, Rabbit, despite an unsatisfactory production at Theatr Clwyd, revealed how he can create tensions and a sense of menace, and also how his plays can work on different levels.

In some ways that atmosphere is rather Pinterish but Barker is hardly economic with his dialogue, his speeches superrich with metaphor and replete with significance, his narrative more complex, his structure less tight, his references literary, scientific and linguistic.

Barker has lots on his mind and I suspect there is much to Aqua Nero that doesn’t emerge here and the presumably intentional ambiguities obscure questions like whether it is about retribution or fate, about identity, about second chances, about debts, about inheritance – all, of course, deep, dark, black waters.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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