"Restore your Faith in Theatre"
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 21/09/09

About a year ago I was sent to one of the Capital's most fashionable theatres to review the premiere of play with impeccable credentials: the first translation of the work of a hip German playwright, both production and direction were trendily minimalist, the weighty setting (Dresden during and after the War) matched with an intricately organised time scheme, the older characters swore and flashed, the younger ones had heroine pallor and sulked, the packed audience swam with jewellery and hemp. Unfortunately the play was morally evasive, emotionally insipid and crushingly dull.

Since then I've seen many more plays; many of them similarly anaemic and similarly banal. It's not that there aren't well intentioned and talented playwrights and directors around presently, but much of the work produced seems conservative, even when intended to be anything but. Over time I've come to believe that good theatre has surprisingly little to do with spectacle or storytelling or even with 'entertainment' ― leave all that for books and film ― the theatre should be about confrontation; about the immediate embodiment and clash of ideas and about taking sides. Good theatre is politics. And increasingly it seems you're more likely to find it on the fringe than in the West End.

The Animals Lawsuit is a case in point. The three person cast may have outnumbered the audience on the night I attended at but it was nevertheless excellent theatre; well-acted and presented, smart and, though it might have lacked nuance, was crucially engaged with communicating the ideas behind the story. This production is a tonic to restore your faith in theatre.

Based on a thousand year old Iraqi fable, the play is, as the title would suggest, a straightforward courtroom drama, its only conceit being that the animals speak (in fact talking animals are scarcely unusual in any form of drama - what is striking here is that here they actually speak for themselves). The court is presided over by a Spirit King, a cheerful paragon of justice who hears the animals' accusations of cruelty and humanity's defence. As with any courtroom drama the audience become a kind of jury, a position recognises in the frequent, though not overplayed, speeches in their direction.

Many of the play's arguments are deceptively simple but capture the way in which the question of animal rights so often shifts from discussions of suffering, to the difficulty of presenting a case for humanity's superiority to animals. The play ends at precisely the right point―with the question of moral conscience as the defining difference, but one that only has meaning if exercised.

This may all sound heavy, but it's actually lightly and swiftly presented (at only three-quarters of an hour long) and benefits from a very fine translation:

...it was true, humans had the power to rule,
But they didn't know how; they were much too cruel...

-is not simply an elegant couplet but one that with its structure of assertion, check and detour, is the kind of line any actor would relish. Writer and performer Pauline Nakirya, who had previously presented a one-person version of the play, must have been delighted by the way both Rosie Jones and Jenna Berk each had the measure of her poetry.

I personally thought it was so good, I've made an approach to buy the rights.

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