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Review: Invisible by Tena Štivičić & Transport Theatre @ New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich! | ShowOff | IP1

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Review: Invisible by Tena Štivičić & Transport Theatre @ New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich!

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Review: Invisible by Tena Štivičić & Transport Theatre @ New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich!

Written by Croatia’s lead playwright Tena Štivičić and developed by Transport Theatre, Invisible is a truly moving portrait of twenty-first century Britain. A narrative witnessed from the many perspectives of an international group of immigrants and a sole Briton whom fate throws in their path, this sublime drama serves as both evaluation and criticism of mankind’s eternal desire to migrate and presents a perspective of a world we seldom consider.

At the root of this sterling drama is an incredibly well written script. Štivičić’s writing beautifully handles both the naivety of her subjects as well as their inherent strength; her characters never seem anything but three-dimensional. The world she creates feels smoothly polished. Whether the audience is placed in an immigrant shanty town, a tiny bedsit or East-end clubland, the settings in which her protagonists dwell feel vibrantly, tangibly real. In addition her confidence with her subject matter is both playful and yet emotive. There are perhaps few issues in the modern age quite as controversial as immigration and to be able to write a piece of theatre that risks neither succumbing to tacky sensationalism nor sacrificing its unflinching honesty shows a lightness a touch that few playwrights are able to lay claim to.

There is also a heavily symbolic weight to the proceedings. Cultures and traditions stack uneasily on top of each other at every turn; aspirations and folk stories meet with the cold reality of British life and inevitably founder. One metaphor in particular rises repeatedly through the character of Felix; his attempts to harness the wind through his career as a corporate advocate of renewable energy seem almost to be an attempt to control the invisible forces that he claims spurs immigration everywhere. The profundity of some of the subject matter and dialogue, if penned by a less skilled playwright, could have easily risked staggering into artless pretension and yet there is never a moment in Štivičić’s story that doesn’t chime with some deeper truth, the isolation engendered by twenty-first century living clearly resounding in each of her characters.

All in all the objects with which the performers create their world are simple and unassuming and yet they are employed with a creativity that is truly astounding. Conspicuous strip lights hang in view, strongly suggestive of the unnatural sickly world the characters find themselves dwelling in. Kitchen tables double as gurneys; during a club scene a hidden fluorescent strip around the border of the stage comes into play turning the functional and drab world of migrant maids and window cleaners into a glamourous nightspot. Perhaps the most wonderful touch involves an extending leaf table; promising Lara he will adjust the overlarge table for their cramped living space the former carpenter Anton sets to work during another character’s monologue. With a wonderful flourish the actors begin to disassemble and reassemble the table whilst Anton mimes measuring and cutting. The existence of such a wonderful intimacy between the work of the choreographer Darren Johnston and the set design of Hayley Grindle does the performance a real credit and far from treating setting as mere drab functionality the company manage to create something fluid and truly magical.

Again the sound design of the piece is delightfully handled. Scenes are accompanied by appropriately sculptured audio montages; not only does the performance open and close with thickly layered recordings of migrant’s personal perspectives but the background audio can often be almost as dynamic as the actors. One of the most poignant moments of the piece involves the asylum seeker Sera who is desperately seeking contact with her husband, a former migrant whose alleged right to remain in Britain offers perhaps her only chance to escape months or even years spent in an immigration centre. As she makes call after call seeking a man who has essentially disappeared from the face of the Earth she is accompanied by the crackle and hiss of telephone lines, the unfeeling and mechanistic soundscape serving to further highlight her lonely frustration. On top of this the stark modernity of the accompanying music is beautifully apt; the occasional hint of Deaf Center or Marconi Union suggests at a remote humanity hovering somewhere in the distance without ever actually overpowering the honest emotionality of the performers on stage.

When it comes to the cast it is in fact very difficult to pick out highlights, each an inextricable part of the gestalt entity that is the performance. Anna Elijasz is endearingly earnest as Lara, an economic migrant whose journey to Britain is founded purely on her desire for a better life. Her struggle to make the best of her meagre lot is skillfully delivered by Elijasz, the occasional childishness of her aspiration tempered by a real sense of purpose and determination. Krystian Godlewski as the occasionally surly Anton is the perfect accompaniment to Lara’s inimitable optimism. Forced to flee his home due to a military coup Anton’s transition to British life costs him everything from his home to his very identity; his transcendent gift as a carpenter is stifled by the short sightedness of a job placement service who cannot see anything beyond his immigration status. Godlewski beautifully balances both the frustrations and the simple vital joy of the character as he struggles to keep pace with his partner’s high ambitions, veering between understandable exasperation and boyish enthusiasm.

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters is that of Felix, the play’s framing narrator. At first the inclusion of a British executive in a play about a group of foreign migrants may seem a little tokenistic, perhaps even grossly absurd, but in actual fact Jon Foster’s philosophising businessman offers one of the richest veins of the piece, the man’s anxious guilt traveling right to the core of Štivičić’s beautifully wrought fable of modern migration. Felix may at points seem bluntly cynical, for example only being able to view his job encouraging a switch to environmentally viable energy sources on coldly economic terms, he is at least acutely aware of his pampered position and the hypocrisy upon which it is built.

Felix is truly vital to Invisible, showing the inherent double standard in our ideas of emigration and immigration and offering a chance for this to be redeemed, and Foster’s performance does his character justice, perfectly modulating between the sexual frustration, social impropriety and unfettered self-awareness that make his character so engaging. Foster gives us the perfect portrait of a man feeling the pang of being separated from the world around him and who longs to feel some degree of connection with another human being. In one telling scene when haranguing his wife for not wanting another child, he intimates he longs to feel a little hand in his own that he is able to lead through the world and in this simple admission Foster wonderfully encapsulates both his role’s frustration about the lack he finds in his life as well as his warmhearted desire to make a connection. There is scarcely a moment where the actor is on stage that doesn’t feel entirely genuine and it is a real credit to his ability that he can so skillfully navigate the mass of contradictions and deep seated guilt that make up his character’s core.

The rest of the cast give equally fine performances. Mark Jax offers a wonderful flexibility in his representations of both the level dignity of Mykola and the brash humour and braggadocio of Gerry, Felix’s feisty and sexually amoral business companion. Jax deftly moves from Mykola’s doleful contemplation of his invisibility to Gerry’s energetic lasciviousness with little inertia and his delivery can be at times both uncomfortable and yet utterly compulsive. Again Gracy Goldman’s African migrant Leyla is performed with a genuine spirit, her sincerity stacked against the comic absurdity of the upper-middle class Louise. Liam Bergin gives a solid performance as Stefan, perfectly capturing the young man’s warmth as well as his idiosyncratic conception of what a life in Britain entails. Finally Bridgitta Roy not only brings a much needed counterweight to Felix’s quivering anxiety as Ann, his much put-upon wife, but she also delivers the piece a wonderful gravitas as Sera, playing her with such pathos and yet lending her an inextinguishable strength that prevents her from being simply reduced to an object of pity.

At every step of the way Invisible feels like an ode to those who are trapped by bureaucratic mechanisms and social conventions, left stranded by the brutal impersonality of our culture. That is the true demon of the piece: the cold indifference that causes us to treat fellow human beings as numbers and prevents us from reaching out to those people who form the very texture of our lives. Perhaps this acts to make the play sound dry and excessively political, something that couldn’t be further from the truth, but it is true to say that whilst all the characters are subjected to the effects of a grimly depersonalising force the blame is never leveled at any individual personality or character. Štivičić’s play doesn’t aim to wag the finger at its audience; rather it hopes to show us the way we can grow together.

Sometimes theatre makes us think. Sometimes theatre moves us or introduces us to emotions we’ve been trying to deny that we have. Invisible goes far beyond this. It reminds us of the precariousness of our society, a society built on difference and isolation, of the colossal chasms that lie between people simply because we do not challenge our received ideas of how our culture functions. It urges us to reach out to both the significant players and supporting characters in our lives and appreciate the rich tapestry of stories and aspirations that surround us on a daily basis. Ultimately the real strength of Invisible can’t be reduced to a mere decision about casting or how a single scene is worded; its true strength is that it reveals how simply and how fundamentally we can be redeemed.

Words: Josh Russell


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