I love a good bit of dystopia. Hard to say why, although I think what I find most fascinating is the psychology of it all. What is it that’s led humanity to this point? What keeps them there? And what happens if someone suddenly sees another way to go?
Where the Hell is Bernard? from Haste Theatre addresses two of these three questions. We never find out what happened, but somehow we find ourselves in The Vine, a walled city from which it’s forbidden to leave. Tannoy announcements explain that productivity is the ultimate goal; that citizens will be executed on their 80th birthday (but hey, at least they get to choose how they die); that young women should keep having regular sex in order to keep the population stable. It’s a terrifying, stark environment governed by unseen leaders, in which every action is monitored, and any protest brings the death penalty.
Inside a towering office block, four identical blonde women from the lost property department go about their daily work, reuniting items with their owners through a bizarre combination of physical sense and mental deduction. They know what needs to be done, and it never occurs to them not to do it; productivity is, after all, the ultimate goal. When the returned belongings of a man called Bernard bounce back, the women are given 24 hours to head out into the city and find him – but it soon becomes clear Bernard doesn’t want to be found…
The show combines physical theatre, puppetry, song and dance to bring to life the grim world of The Vine and the contrasting beauty that still exists outside its walls. We see each new location through the eyes of the four performers, whose initial confidence ebbs away to be replaced by discomfort, fear and wonder as they venture further and further from what they know. Elly Beaman Brinklow, Valeria Compagnoni, Jesse Dupré and Sophie Taylor work well as a unit, powerfully conveying their emotions through facial expressions and movement; in one particularly effective sequence we feel their panic as they search for Bernard with increasing desperation, while in another we sense their peaceful resolution. Lighting and sound effects from Katrin Padel and Paul Freeman also play a big part in establishing each setting, and especially in highlighting the different environments on either side of the wall.
Where the Hell is Bernard? offers us an extreme example of a society so influenced by its leaders that it’s lost all identity. It’s a glimpse into a disturbing future, but there are also echoes of an equally terrifying past (and a more than slightly worrying present). In this scenario, Bernard’s quiet rebellion and the women’s enlightenment offer a faint glimmer of hope that all is not completely lost.
The only problem is that said enlightenment and peaceful resolution seem to come a little too easily. The implication is that the women have been governed by The Vine for at least as long as they can remember, if not their whole lives, and it didn’t sit right with me that such deep-rooted obedience could be overturned so quickly. The show’s certainly enjoyable enough to be longer than its current 50 minutes, so it would be fascinating to explore more deeply the conflict between the characters’ new-found knowledge and everything they’ve ever been told.
All that said, Where the Hell is Bernard? is still a work in progress, and will I’m sure only get better over time. The show’s already both entertaining and thought-provoking in its content and performance, and it has the potential to develop even further into something really special.
Where the Hell is Bernard? is at The Space until 29th October.
To find out more about the show, read my interview with Haste Theatre.