Guest review by Ross McGregor
Big Guns at The Yard is a new play by Nina Segal, after her debut at the Gate Theatre in 2016, with In The Night Time (Before The Sun Rises). Featuring a cast of two, Debra Baker and Jessye Romeo, and skilfully directed by Dan Hutton, Big Guns is a nerve-shreddingly uncomfortable watch about the anxiety of living in our modern western world where everyone is emotionally isolated but obsessively cyber-connecting.
The plot of the piece is somewhat difficult to pin down without writing a thesis on the script, but it is perhaps best described as a dramatic poem, in a modern style, split between two voices, dealing with the growing fear of terrorism or attack, from the perspective of a forum board commenter, or serial tweeter. This ever-present sense of foreboding and threat is symbolised verbally by the oft-repeated phrase “The man with the gun…” This means that there is a third presence in the room with these women, invisible to us, unknown beyond his gender and the fact that he is armed, but still demanding that they validate, investigate and justify their own existences.
The style of the show is perhaps a visual radio play. The beauty and power of the production is in the smooth and meticulously paced patter between the two unnamed speakers, and a gorgeous horror soundscape designed by Kieran Lucas. At multiple points the stage is plunged into darkness and all we experience is either the amplified and sometimes distorted voices of the actresses, playing over a series of ominous chord progressions or precise and stilted sound effects. There is very little blocking to speak of, and the production makes no apologies for that. The performers are static and seated on the floor of the sloped stage for almost all of the production, but the whirling stream of consciousness style of the poetic text cares neither for naturalism nor visual pieces as we’re thrown somewhat chaotically through a series of interlocking vignettes, and provides all the movement that we could wish for – we just hear it instead of seeing it.
“Big Guns,” the back of the programme states, “is the prickling at the back of your neck, the faint taste of blood on your teeth, the could-be sounds of a strange figure in the semi-darkness. The YouTube clip you hope doesn’t load but can’t help watching.” And yes, Big Guns is all those things, however due to the jarring and whirling speed at which the script is delivered, as well as how the writing leaps over and through narratives with complications, contradictions and repetitions, you emerge from the play’s conclusion with not a lot more understanding of the play’s subject than when you went in.
Segal’s script is packed full of details and imagery, whipped through by Romeo and Baker with a delicious enjoyment of diction and a verve of delivery. It is confusing, mesmerising and captivating. You may not understand every second – hell, there was a good ten minutes where I possessed not a clue what was happening – but it’s done well and with enough grace that you go with it in the hope that the message might permeate your eardrums via some kind of verbal osmosis. Perhaps to some people’s tastes this might be too abstract and pretentious in terms of the script’s ambivalence for conventional narrative or character – the actors are deliberately non-characterised and are in essence interchangeable in terms of their delivery and viewpoints, but what matters is the poetry and meter of Segal’s verse, and here Baker and Romeo shine as pure masters/mistresses of their craft. Baker is in equal parts gleeful and nonchalant, but possesses moments of unbridled pathos in the face of Romeo’s antagonism and provocation. The stunningly beautiful Romeo allows Segal’s words to trip and fly from her mouth, her eyes glittering in the red darkness, drawing us in and devastating us with emotion in the final fourth-wall breaking moments of the production.
There is an element of the production that speaks about our over-reliance on technology and social media, and our inability to restrain ourselves from online obsessions, and though I didn’t quite get how that ties into the afore/ever-mentioned “Man With The Gun”, in general the atmosphere and tension created by the piece is phenomenal. It plays to our own paranoia and fears, of violence, of disruption and chaos, and it does this wonderfully well.
Obviously the topical timing with the recent attack in London pushes the subject matter’s concerns right to the front of our minds, but the writer is skilful enough to not languish on gratuity. The similarities between us and the speakers may be narrowing with every passing crisis that we face, as unfathomable violence keeps breaking into our consciousness, but ultimately the play’s message is one of positivity and togetherness. There is a way to beat the Man With The Gun. Lose the fear. Embrace acceptance, and – ironically considering the play’s lack of visual elements – open your eyes to who exactly the Man With The Gun is.
Big Guns is a powerful piece of writing that makes a good play – but potentially an even better podcast.
Big Guns is at The Yard until 8th April.