“You must have a Christian name you little pessimist”
As the Edinburgh Festival disgorges shows left right and centre into London theatres, it can still be a bit of challenge what to go and see – the cacophony of critical voices only really allows a small handful of must-see shows to emerge and the rest are left to fight for their own bit of London’s crowded turf. The choice to go and see Invertigo’s Outside on the Street at the Arcola was largely guided by my previous experience with the company when they brilliantly brought a Welsh-language play – Saer Doliau – to the Finborough earlier this year. But their mission to adventure into all kinds of unfamiliar European work and so this play sees them tackle this post-WWII tale by Wolfgang Borchert.
Partly based on his own experiences of escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp and returning to a war-devastated Hamburg, Borchert delves into something of the effects of a cataclysmic war, where not only physical destruction but emotional damage has been inflicted in the most overwhelming of ways and whether there is any possible way back from there. The central character is Sergeant Beckmann, who returns from Siberia to find his wife has taken a lover, his parents are dead, his city is ruined and in an act of desperation, decides to take his life by throwing himself into the Elbe. But the river sends him back into the world from whence he embarks on a torrid journey full of characters both real and imagined, surreally searching for any kind of solace he can find.
Cheek By Jowl associate Owen Horsley’s production is ideally suited to the youthful exuberance of Invertigo, and provides an ideal springboard for an exploration of the innate theatricality of the story. The cast cycle through a wide range of characters like Death and God and the River Elbe with a fluid ease, manipulating the wire framed boxes of Simon Anthony Wells’ design into any number of locations. The gender swapping, music playing, accent shifting work is frequently dazzling – simply conceived but sharply executed and with the relationship between Paapa Essiedu’s intensely damaged Beckmann and Sion Alun Davies’ subtly moving The Other at the centre, it becomes an intermittently powerfully drawn experience.
The only criticism that I can wager is that it always feels overtly theatrical at times. There’s a near-Brechtian sense of remove from the emotion of the story, the utter bleakness of Beckmann is a given and rarely explored in any visceral manner. Instead the disconnected expressionism plays up the dreamlike inscrutability, haunting in a non-specific way which may exercise the grey matter but never really engages the heart. It still makes for an intriguing piece of theatre worth schlepping over to Dalston for and I await with interest to see what Invertigo’s next move will be.