Gulags, Safe Spaces and Spycams: VAULT Festival Roundup – Review

Image Credit: Theatre of Gulags


In spring, the warren beneath Waterloo Station starts teeming with life; a network of underground tunnels linking basement cinemas, impromptu jazz bars, and fringe theatre venues. Pitched at the folks of the Edinburgh Festivals, VAULT’s venue recalls Underbelly Cowgate. And since it’s inception in 2012, the Festival has grown its number of shows twenty times over – and its audience, ten.

Theatre of Gulags is what VAULT was made for. Here, hessian sacks serve as Iron Curtains, projection screens for the stories of four prisoners of Soviet Union labour camps. We walk through them to take our seats in an improvised theatre, like those built inside the labour camps.

Anna Ostrovskaia’s installation is immersive, but with purpose. It is no haunted house, instead carefully crafted, with subtle audio, video, and staging of ‘archive’ objects (by Jack Clearwater, Emile Scott Burgoyne, and Jock Maitland, respectively.)

Gulag theatre floorboards were trod by artists from distinct theatrical and ethnic backgrounds. A Queer Roma man, a Ukrainian theatre revolutionary, a Jewish puppetry maker, and the first woman to direct an opera. This diversity is reflected in the strong casting, both in their filmed and life performances, making this a truly ensemble production.

Les Kurbas. Natalia Sats. Hava Volokovich. Vadim Kozim – a musician, whose haunting songs lingers until the play’s uncertain ending. These are names that should never be forgotten, much like this production.

Trains hurtle overhead in the Cavern venue, transformed into a dank torture chamber in The Ballerina. Edward Khom (Pacifique Muamba) and Dominique Izabella Little (Colin) play at being an ‘African dictator’ and an imprisoned diplomat, engaged in a hostage. Both are limited by their one-dimensional characters, with nothing more interesting to say than those stuck behind foul rubberised masks.

Khaos’ production promises to tell a deeper story – one about Western hypocrisy, democracy, and how those white victims in World War II learned to weaponise that same violence in Algeria years later. But sadly, The Ballerina only reproduces negative stereotypes about the unnamed African country in which it is set.

The railways weigh heavy on Niall Moorjani’s Mohan: A Partition Story. The storyteller admits it’s impossible to condense two hundred years of Asian history into an hour, but they try. With a lengthy tour, including the Scottish Storytelling Festival, Moorjani has had enough time to hone the production (occasional slip ups remain inevitable). Scene changes are bluntly signposted with dates: “1608. The East India Company arrive. They’re pale and their clothes are shit.”

Hearing individual stories is the only way we might begin to comprehend a civil conflict that cost ten million lives. So Moorjani moves, unevenly, between the experiences of their grandfather, and their own political polemics. They remind us that Partition and Pakistan were cooked up at Oxbridge, executed in one year – when Brexit got at least four. Nevertheless, these refrains to contemporary politics encourage us to consider the Long Partition, and the lasting impacts of empire today.

MOLKA shines light on another undervoiced crime – the use of spycams in South Korea. Just 2% of cases reported result in imprisonment, and so this production marks ‘their contribution’ to making the practice better known.

For those less compelled by physical theatre – their athleisure is a necessary costume for their contortions – there’s much to be drawn from the production. Double-sided squares on the floor serve as white bathroom tiles, and dark black voids. Nikita de Martin’s under lighting, an eerie green, emulates the digital nature of the offences in focus.

Protestations – for the right ‘to poop in privacy’ – are strongly delivered in South Korean and English. The rest is more abstract, repeated references to squatting, sinking, then going into free fall. Maja Laskowska and Taeyun Kim slap each other, and themselves, the insinuation that the harm continues after the offence, in the psychological torture a victim inflicts on themselves.

Finally, Rhys Hastings’ CACEROLEO draws connections between performatively ‘safe spaces’ in the arts, and his childhood, witnessing domestic violence. Part-spoken, part-screamed, and sometimes slipped up, the monologue is raw and obsessively delivered. Some glitches (‘features’) are intentional, speaking to how our memory gets obscured, particularly when recalling trauma.

It is both refreshingly nuanced, and theatrically indulgent. Daniel York Loh steals the background television screens as a stereotypically toxic theatre consultant. To his students (men) of physical classes, he declares a space ‘safe’, then instructs them to dominate ‘with consent’, and never to draw from their own reality – or risk the same fate as Daniel Day-Lewis. Superbly comedic, his character exposes the contradictory pressures imposed upon young men. We understand their confusion, which makes an empathetic accompaniment to Hastings’ more psychological take on their behaviour, the uneasy responses provoked when these pressures become too much.

The production and television screens could be CACEROLEO’s greatest triumph. We never see violence against women, avoiding perpetuating exploitation. Instead, there’s Hastings’ high school prom, shot against peacocking birds, and an awkward attempt at grinding. Masked women, dancing flamenco in mass protest, follow later, one subtle contrast which lifts the piece from its American context. It could just as well make for a video installation, soundtracked by Stromae’s ‘Formidable’.

Hastings – who worked as a staffer on the Clinton campaign – concludes that he has to make this because he ‘keeps getting it wrong’. And at times, he tries to make up for too much toxic masculinity – 9/11, Afghanistan, and references to the conflict in Ukraine. It abstracts from the quiet testimonies, put front and centre by Polish director Nastazja Domaradzka, who draws on the use of theatre as social resistance in Eastern Europe.

‘I wanted this to be a heavy metal band’, CACEROLEO begins, ‘but fuck that’. Close enough; Hastings spends as much time screaming into the stand mic, to equally unsettling effect.

Last month, VAULT’s Leake Street venue-landlord announced that it would no longer host in 2024, putting the future of the Festival in jeopardy. Its future may be smaller, with more select productions – but this could also be an opportunity to refocus the programme.

Words by Jelena Sofronijevic

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