In Ancient China the Emperor places his hand upon death’s door. He is taken to his tomb accompanied by his ladies, the engineers who designed it, and the convicts who carved it out of the ground. Each group is sealed in a different section awaiting death with their Emperor, but the ladies discover their autonomy and begin to adapt to their new surroundings, led by the protagonist, More Light.
More Light by Bryony Lavery is a tricky play to get right; the stage directions are incredibly specific about almost every aspect of the performance, while the lyricism and repetition of the writing can make it difficult to engage an audience. Half Remembered Dreams should therefore be congratulated for creating a successful performance that cuts down the play without losing too much of the key emotional resonance.
A keen eye for detail has clearly been applied to every element of the production, from the props and costumes to precise details of movement. A little more variation in delivery might have been more involving, but the graceful recitation of Lavery’s poetic lines adds a wonderful sense of atmosphere to the intimate venue. It’s a testament to the hard work and thought put into this production that an array of props are brought on and off stage with barely a halt in the proceedings – all the scene changes are accomplished with the same grace and ease as the scenes themselves. The realism invoked by the props and costume changes was a delight to see in a fairly small production, though there was room to push this further.
Though the cast of the Emperor’s ladies is cut down to just the seven largest roles, the cast still manage to create an impression of the women as a collective body, moving together well with carefully choreographed movements. They are perhaps too successful in this regard – a combination of the cut-down script and inconsistent characterisation sometimes make the characters difficult to distinguish from each other. While Louise Parker, Charlotte Tsai and Zara Malik as More Light, Many Treasures, and Playful Kitten respectively remember to stay in character in the group scenes, there is a tendency amongst the rest of the cast to forget individual characterisation when their characters are not the focus of the scene. A few moments of group overacting also break engagement from time to time, particularly when the ladies gasp like swooning maidens twice in quick succession.
Louise Parker is an intriguing More Light, relying more on her voice for expression than her face. Charlotte Tsai, on the other hand, is the most visually expressive of the cast, her eyes widening with wild pleasure every time food is mentioned. Nabir Aziz plays the role of Man with a convincing physicality that contrasts appropriately with the movements of More Light; unfortunately, however, some of what he says is incomprehensible – I can’t be sure if he had adopted the low, gravelly voice for the part or not but, given his character’s talk of parrots, it makes him appear more pirate than convict.
The production deals well with the peculiarities of the script, including Lavery’s chapter headings that are projected onto a screen at the back, also used for the moments of ‘shadow play’ that are delivered by the projector throughout the performance. However, a projection of a brief shot of La Tomatina seems an inept surreal image for butchery, while a recurring video of birds is presumably included to hammer home the link between birds, independent thought and freedom that the writing demonstrates clearly enough. Unfortunately, the theme of light and dark are not particularly well exploited in the lighting design, a shame since it figures so prominently in the plot.
Ultimately this hour long production serves as an excellent introduction to the strange world of More Light, occasionally exquisitely brought to life, that simply needs a little more commitment in performances and a more complete design to fully realise the potentials of the script.