‘Pretentious’ - the word that haunts all corners of conceptual art, the offensive fallback of the Philistines and the impatient. It can be used relentlessly to dismiss any attempt of creative innovation, and indeed the entire modernist movement - which now forms one cornerstone of our literary canon - was once dismissed as such. But, as I watched ‘The Well’, I must confess that the word bubbled toward my consciousness with obsessive frequency, at once framing the spectacle before me as little more than a farce.
I battled against this viewpoint, however, shuffling my body from its cross-legged resistance, and made an active attempt - as all experimentalist art demands - to think about what I was watching, and not simply to receive it. With this stance, I - and the play - had more success: it transpired as a mosaic of imaginative vignettes that centred around the eponymous image of a well, focusing in particular on its association with the womb (the programme informed us of many etymological links between the two).
Jonathan Brown, the scriptwriter and director, made an ambitious attempt to cover a myriad of themes in the play - class relations, maternity, the Earth itself - but the gravity of these issues was compromised by the scope of the project, which too often appeared to spiral into a chaos that was out of joint with the self-containment of the central metaphor. There were some motifs - visual, musical and verbal - which threaded the experience together, but their positioning seemed random at points, serving to alienate rather than recalibrate the audience.
Most of the play’s appeal resided in its ingenious set pieces, which provided nuggets of enjoyment. There was for instance a repeated enactment of a woman attempting to escape from a hole - a well? A womb? - held back by the tentacular arms of her fellow cast, a spectacle lit only by torchlight. The technique was highly effective and almost prompted an inappropriate use of my camera.
If we were to judge ‘The Well’ by the response of the audience at large, the impression would be poor: both the people behind me and sitting next to me left at the interval, unimpressed by the play’s experimentalism; others were disgruntled by the minimalist set and - rather unfairly we might say - the lack of complimentary wine. Certainly, the problems were many, but for me what was crucial was the play’s thematic inconsistency and its failure to live up to its ambition. Although there is potential there, ‘The Well’ needs to be refined before it can be recommended.