Elevate, which showed at the Pyramid Theatre at Leeds University last week, made use of space and character in a bold and interesting way, with fantastic results. This should come as a surprise to nobody; the range of societies and groups putting on shows at the university are developing a well deserved reputation for their inventive approach to exploring complex social issues.
Elevate, at least to begin with, is one of the simplest kinds of theatre- it’s essentially nothing more than a dialogue. Following five people who find themselves trapped in an elevator, the characters’ initial interpersonal conflicts are unpacked through a series of vignettes exploring each of their backgrounds. The characters run the gamut of stereotypes you’d expect to find in a performance of this kind: the angry ex-executive with a drinking problem (Andrew Gregory), a vain and hateful young woman (Mia Stone), a jaded and stubborn older woman (Celia Bax), a timid gay man whose parents rejected him (Matthew Morton), and a peacemaker struggling to come to terms with her own adoption (Alice Hautvast). The show doesn’t aim to develop original characters; it’s a forensic exploration of modern archetypes.
Of these characters, I found Daniel, the timid gay man seemingly suffering from some kind of social anxiety, the most compelling. This was, in part, because of the stand-out performance by Matthew Morton. As well as his main role, Morton took a number of minor roles throughout the performance. It was the contrast between these characters that allowed him to really shine; the rapidity with which he switched from a convincingly shy and uncomfortable young man to a mature and confident older brother figure was remarkable.
It was not just the actors who impressed, though. The decision by the designer (Elle Money) to eschew traditional seating styles, instead setting up chairs around a square in the middle of the room (the elevator) so that the audience were never more than a few feet from the actors, really drove home some of the more powerful moments in the performance. (For instance, when Andrew Gregory’s character was screaming in the face of Mia Stone’s, his anger felt all the more visceral for its proximity. )
The lighting and sound were used to devastating effect, too. I can imagine that turning a theatre into an lift is a surprisingly difficult task – unlike traditional settings, there are no props that can be used to identify the stage in this way. Instead, lighting and sound are the only instruments available. Elevate’s technical team rose to this challenge at every opportunity, from the initial malfunction of the elevator, to the dramatic closing scenes.
Towards the end of the show, an interesting sequence takes place in which Alice Hautvast’s character’s thoughts and fantasies about the identity of her birth mother are explored. The decision to have Hautvast physically shape and direct the characters playing the idealised versions of her potential mother is as effective as it is simple; it’s difficult to think of a clearer way of expressing the innate tendency to toy with and manufacture artificial notions of who other people are when they’re absent. In some ways, it was a jarring gear shift from the previous vignettes, which were straightforward stories. It paid off, though, and was in many ways the pinnacle of the performance. This was only thanks to the very impressive work from the directing team: Alannah Marchewka and Rebecca Gigliobianco.
The show’s discussion of identity is, in some ways, very convincing. The sequence explored above seems a perfect foil for the delivery of a message about the malleability of identity, at least insofar as someone else’s identity can exist in a person’s head. So too does the changing views and opinions of those in the elevator; there’s a recurring theme of alliances between the various characters forming and reforming as they learned more about each other and reacted to the behaviour of Stone’s character, whose role was characterised by her contempt for everyone else.
There’s a fascinating message here about the rigidity of identity, or lack thereof. It’s a message that derives much of its beauty from how subtly it is played out throughout the performance; it would be relatively easy to focus on the stories of the individual characters rather than the overarching theme. Instead, we see how the seemingly immutable characteristics we’ve associated with each character instead flow from some trauma in their background.
The ending crystallises this conversation. The elevator plummets to the ground, causing the death of every character. This sparks introspection, which causes the surviving character to decide to live a better life. This is supplemented by the explanation that, rather than being a contemptible bigot by nature, she’s hateful as a result of the treatment that she has received throughout her life, but the trauma caused by this experience has inspired her to turn over a new leaf.
This volte-face is somewhat dissatisfying, as redemption through trauma often is, but it’s delivered magnificently well. Moreover, it’s difficult to see how else the show could have been wrapped up. Fundamentally, too, it is the most effective way of drawing together the various threads of the story into a single underlying message that there are deeper explanations for people’s behaviour than that they are just a ‘bad person’, and that everyone can change.
All in all, Elevate was a compelling piece of theatre that very effectively showcased the talents of both its cast and production team. More than anyone, though, the writer Alannah Marchewka deserves credit. Elevate’s message is meaningful, relevant and well-delivered. What more could we want from a show?
Words by Charley Weldrick.