Review: dreamplay at The Vaults

What did you dream about last night? I can’t be sure, although I have a feeling at one point I was teaching some American children how to do the can-can. This is pretty standard; my dreams hardly ever make any sense, if I remember them at all. But what does tend to stay with me is how they make me feel – sometimes happy and relaxed, occasionally relieved, other times tense and panicky. (I once had a dream I was on the run, and spent the entire following day feeling uneasy and looking over my shoulder, without really knowing why.)

Anyone seeking a linear or even logical narrative in BAZ Productions’ dreamplay, based on August Strindberg’s 1901 play, will inevitably leave feeling disappointed; each time we come close to understanding what’s going on, the play veers off in an unexpected direction and brings us back to square one. And yet there’s no denying that the scenes we witness – as disjointed and downright odd as they undoubtedly are – evoke some pretty powerful emotions. Some are funny, others sad, others a bit scary (nothing quite like being suddenly plunged into darkness to get the heart racing). And I’m willing to bet if you asked the audience on the way out which moment in particular spoke to them, there’d be a lot of different answers.

Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio
Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio
At this point in a review I’d usually include a plot summary, but as we’ve already established, that’s not really relevant in this case. That said, there is the hint of a story running through the scenes: a young woman, Agnes, comes to Earth to try and discover what makes human beings sad. It’s a quest that ends in disappointment, however, and Agnes finally leaves without the enlightenment she was hoping for.

The Vaults, beneath Waterloo Station, is an atmospheric and inspired choice of venue for director Sarah Bedi’s mysterious journey into the world of dreams. As we move from each space to the next, we’re plunged into a different world: a dimly lit auditorium; a modern bedroom; vast, echoing tunnels; even the open air. And while the promenade experience is an unusual and occasionally frustrating one – just as you’re getting comfortable, up you get and move on again – it also feels necessary to create that sensation of being in a dream, where your surroundings can and do change without warning. The only scene that didn’t really work for me was the last one; with the audience all on our feet and most of the action taking place on the floor, those of us in the back struggled to see what was happening.

The cast take on a variety of roles throughout the show. Colin Hurley is convincing as an audience member plucked from his seat; it’s simultaneously a disappointment and a relief when he’s revealed to be a plant. Jade Ogugua and Jack Wilkinson shine in perhaps the closest scene to “normality”, in which a recently married couple argue about their finances, while Michelle Luther is both entertaining and slightly terrifying as a performer controlled by the cello music to which she dances. That music is provided by alternative cellist, vocalist and singer-songwriter Laura Moody, in whose hands the cello becomes not just a musical instrument but almost human, capable of menace, joy, playfulness and despair.

Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio
Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio
From a traditional perspective, dreamplay doesn’t really make any sense. It’s a series of striking images and moments that, afterwards, we may struggle to connect. As someone who likes to leave the theatre understanding what I’ve just seen, I now find myself a little frustrated at my inability to pinpoint what this play was all about. Then again, I often feel that way about my dreams (I have no idea where teaching the can-can came from, for instance, and that bothers me) – so in that respect, dreamplay is right on the money.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… ūüėČ

Interview: BAZ Productions, dreamplay

BAZ Productions was formed in 2009 with the goal of creating¬†work that’s “alive and limitless…¬†courageous and more than a little bit mischievous…” And if you think that sounds intriguing, wait until you hear director Sarah Bedi’s summary of the company’s latest production, dreamplay, which comes to The Vaults in September.

dreamplay is a dreamy-journey through underground tunnels, searching for the door which hides the answer to the meaning of life, pursued by a clown, a teacher and a set of lovers…

The play’s a modern re-working of¬†August Strindberg’s A Dream Play, written in 1901, and tells the story of¬†a young woman who arrives on earth from ‚Äėabove‚Äô to discover the mysteries of humanity.¬†For the uninitiated, Sarah explains, “Strindberg’s original A Dream Play¬†is a massive, bonkers, labyrinthine play about the meaning of life and why we suffer ‚Äď or at least that’s what I think it’s about. I was chatting to a well-respected theatre academic last week, who admitted he hadn’t the faintest clue what Strindberg was getting at with¬†A Dream Play! He couldn’t pin it down. I love it because of that. I think it’s the most honest Strindberg is in any of his writing. It’s all about human expression and suffering and feeling lost. Like a dream, it’s to be felt.”

dreamplay, BAZ Productions

Like BAZ’s previous productions,¬†dreamplay makes innovative use of an unusual space:¬†“We’ve always loved spaces that weren’t designed to be theatres. That had a purpose and a life before we arrived, and so are bristling with their own energy. In some ways they become another character in our team of performers. We aim to work with what the space gives us for free – it’s not always a process of layering up a design, rather brushing away at the edges of the space until we stumble upon something special. Archaeology in a sense.

“Unusual venues are also fun in terms of playing with audience expectations. There’s always lots of talk around about theatre ‘subverting’ audience expectations. However, I think we want to go further. It’s about removing expectations completely. You rock up outside a Crypt in the centre of London and you don’t know what to expect, so as an audience member you arrive empty. You find your way to an artgallery down a graffitied alley in Shoreditch and again you’re open to something new. You have to be. Because this doesn’t look like a theatre in the traditional sense, so all the usual rituals go out the window – along with all expectations and preconceptions. You can be present with us, here and now.

“The Vaults is another great space to play in – it’s still connected to Waterloo station, we are right below the platforms so every few minutes a train passes overhead and its vibrations permeate the space. It feels alive. And very dream-like: the tunnels and spaces range in size, from intimate and claustrophobic to gaping and cavernous, space leading onto space in a maze of interconnected rooms. We’re imagining it’s the giant sub-conscious of London. Alive but in the shadows, pulsing away down there and holding all our fears and dreams.”

dreamplay also features original music from¬†alternative singer-cellist Laura Moody.¬†“Laura started working with us a few years ago, and her work has become central to the piece. At that time, we’d been developing a very playful set of rehearsal ‘rules’ and it was fun to introduce Laura and see how ‘normal’ impro would work if you made one character cello music. So I’m sat arguing with my Mum, but my Mum is this weird set of noises Laura’s making. So Laura isn’t playing my Mum, the music is. It was instantly dream-like. Her music is not so much soundtrack as another performer in the play.”

It’s becoming increasingly clear that dreamplay isn’t your ‘traditional’ night at the theatre…¬†starting¬†with the seating arrangements – or lack of.¬†“I guess an obvious difference is that the audience will be on their feet, moving through the space: rather than observing the play, you will be inside it. Narratively, though, I hope it’ll feel like we’re offering you a bunch of dots and it’s for you to join them to create whatever shape you think you see. I think¬†it’s a show that literally cannot exist without the audience’s imagination.

“I guess what the audience¬†take away from the piece is very open, I don’t think I’d want to dictate what that should be.¬†I hope they feel like they’ve been inside a dream of their very own, and are left with the collection of feelings and thoughts that arise from that.”

Catch dreamplay at The Vaults from 10th September-1st October.