On Friday night, I was fortunate enough to once again witness a piece of new, live theatre.
Yes, you heard that right! New! Live!
Gutter Street Theatre Company’s latest offering, Feathers is being performed in The Calder Theatre Bookshop, and it truly set the mark for what the future of socially-distanced theatre should look like; cosy, yet perfectly safe, and undeniably thought-provoking.
Gutter Street present a unique approach to their plays, rooting them all within the same road, yet spanning different time periods and introducing us to a range of residents. Their second play, Feathers, this time locates us in a bookshop the night before a national draft. Whilst this world is clearly alternative, and frankly dystopian, its similarities to our own serve as a stark reminder throughout of our own social failings, both past and present. This contemporaneous evocation is subtle, expertly eschewing an easy social commentary that surely would have fallen flat. Instead, what Feathers presents is a tight and focused display of a world in which family, patriotism, and morality are all put to the test.
Walking through the Calder Bookshop itself before entering its theatre, you are truly enveloped into this world; watching from the start as Nathan Chatelier’s and Charlotte Keith’s siblings, Kaleb and Cecily, attempt to deal with the potentiality of their final night together. Their ‘Last Hurrah’, as the increasingly ominous background display aptly indicates, is spent packing and bickering and planning as they attempt to make a final flee from their state-sanctioned militia duties. However, they are soon thwarted by an Officer Haines, played by Matt Howdon, leaving the fate of them irrevocably uncertain.
Whilst Cecily’s onstage presence is fleeting, her impact is surely felt throughout the rest of the production, with Keith giving a strong but subtle performance. She does not just epitomise the perfect stroppy sister, but rather the boldness and integrity of those refusing to simply go quietly. Having declined to officially sign away her final contractual obligations to the state, Cecily attempts to escape, instead seeking a utopian future elsewhere with the promise that she will soon be reunited with her brother. Keith is defiant yet understated in this role, perhaps representing the idealism of the utopian dream itself.
Upon his sister’s departure, Kaleb’s own attempts at escape are yet again impeded by Officer Haines. What follows is a superbly inconsistent back-and-forth between the two characters that has us guessing about them as much as they are each other. We, too, are put to the test.
Chatelier’s Kaleb proves to be an intense character. He first appears as intellectual, superior and captivatingly obnoxious. It becomes increasingly apparent that he uses literature as a shield, not a weapon, and this continual message of the power of the written and spoken word is not lost on the audience. Kaleb’s uncertain standoff with Haines, however, begins to reveal his vulnerabilities and nuances which Chatelier deftly delivers and from which the action of the play itself pivots. Throughout the latter part of the play, however, there are clear issues in pacing. Perhaps the piece could have actually benefitted from a longer run-time, presently running at just over an hour, with much of the significant revelations of the narrative falling flat. Despite this, the achievement on the part of the actors in displaying the variability of their characters in such a short period of time is commendable.
Howdon’s Haines presented the perfect foil to Chatelier’s Kaleb. Boyish, yet fiercely loyal, Howdon presents a multi-layered character that constantly surprises, amuses, and fears us. Is he ultimately ignorant in his parroting politics, or in fact omniscient in his subjugation to the state? The chemistry between Haines and Kaleb continues to complicate this. With their borderline flirting, teasing each other both politically and personally, they leave us guessing as to both of their fates to the very end of the play.
Gutter Street’s production of Feathers was certainly stimulating. As audience members, we became increasingly complicit in the events of the narrative- as well as in its situation as a piece of performance. With the slow return of live theatre, more productions, like Feathers, are going to be needed in order to keep us not just entertained, but alert.
Words by Emily Radakovic.
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