A Tale of Two Cities: Blood for Blood (Chung Ying/Holloway) Review

So, it’s already been a year since Chung Ying Theatre and Jonathan Holloway’s first collaboration.  And they are back with a reimagining of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – this time, though, with a full cast from London.  (Which makes me briefly question the reason behind the partnership, though they did audition HK actors in the process.  But this is a review, so regardless of politics…)  Let’s get on with the show!

We are presented with a unique set of 8 x 8 rows of black chairs, each with a pair of shoes underneath, the floor lighting stands level with the ground, while overhead lamps hang low enough to reach up and touch.  A musician (the director) sits central upstage, right at the back (and sadly not quite visible to me, sitting level to the stage and chairs).  Three microphone stands are positioned on both left and right sides, with a hanging light that acts as a personal spotlight (very nice usage).  Through the microphones, we are given voiceovers and narration in character, offering context, tone and perspective, promptly drawing us into this world of conflict.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – the famous quote put into quick context in a situation of war between two countries, there is always someone who loses and someone who benefits.  For war is good business for some, no?

As in Jekyll and Hyde, Holloway is great at creating atmosphere – the most significant difference for me was the sound and musical appeal.  The scene changes via singing chorus and the sound design (credit to Sarah Llewellyn) were absolutely mesmerising.  Enhancing the ensemble energy, it was excellently paced and was an exercise in aural spaces, filling the theatre with ominous feeling and anticipation.

The lighting design was subtle but effective – with a blue backdrop, yellow lamps and soft white floor lights, the timing of lighting allowed a visual juxtaposition that separated the space and characters.  When all the lights were up, the scene was unified.  A slight shock factor was when Madame Defarge hits the lamps and made them swing violently – increasing the electric tension in the air.

Nicki Hobday’s portrayal of Madame Defarge is the epitome of grief – constantly defined by negative space, she holds empty shoes and knits a scarf for a son she no longer has.  She rubs the finger that no longer carries a wedding band, which paid for the funeral.  “Grief is expensive” and it costs Madam Defarge everything including her humanity as she is consumed by hatred and revenge.  Opposite her, Mike Rogers commands the stage as a grieving father, and a loyal but conflicted husband, with whom we can empathise with.

Barsad played by Abby Wain is a character that reflects our current multi cultural society – with an Arab name from a French colony, she speaks perfect English as a British resident.  A question of identity is raised – for me, a cultural-linguistical one, for the story, the element of hidden identity.  Better stop here to prevent spoilers!

All perspectives have an agenda, and all decisions are politically motivated; the play questions the “liberal conscience” and concept of “corruption” – nothing is straight cut and everything is tainted by context.  The courtroom scene headed by Eric MacLennan as the Magistrate and Mike Rogers’ lawyer role of Stryver is a chilling one – how corruption can be justified by the educated perspective.  This key element speaks truths of our modern society and more so in this fast-paced world of media and social networks.  Will other audience members take this slice of advice and stop taking Facebook posts and Twitter retweets for granted without questioning their authenticity, agenda or intentions?  One can only hope that messages of truth from the fictional stage of theatre can transcend into reality.

In essence, though, Blood for Blood’s strongest element is the powerful love story between Abby Wain’s primary role as Lucie Manette and Graeme Rose’s talented but under-credited lawyer Sydney Carton.  The passionate feelings between the characters are the essence of “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” (Tennyson), but her choice for social stability and loyalty to her fiancé Charles Darnay (played by James Camp) later reveals the irony that their relationship is the one they should never have had, shadowed by the conflict of the wider story arc of generational revenge.

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The use of microphones for narration and voice over worked brilliantly, but not so much when it was used to start off a scene.  I believe the positioning of the microphones was to emphasise the characters’ distance (emotional/personal) yet although they were physically apart, the projected voices through the microphones actually did the reverse effect as they then moved towards each other (and away from the microphones).  Also, there was some juxtaposition movement positioned up stage, which was not quite visible as it was so far back (as I mentioned I was sat level with the stage, so the chairs blocked some of the visuals).  Perhaps fewer chairs would have also allowed the actors a little more freedom of movement – the restrictive space is great for the themes, but if actors need to run around, I’d rather they have just a little more leeway.  One less row of chairs wouldn’t hurt!

I personally was not a big fan of the director/musician/sound tech also playing the character role of Dr Manette, because it was a bit distracting to have all the technical objects interfere with the acting space (since the other actors had to go upstage to where he is positioned as sound operator).  A great idea, but perhaps too many roles piled on.  I understand it might be a lack of acting bodies, yet the role of Dr Manette could have been represented by an object, or a simple spotlit space, since he has few lines and interactions.

However, its success lies in the captivating story that leaves you with a hauntingly bittersweet echo of romance and tragedy.  The actors’ delivery of multiple roles should be commended for their fluid transitions.  Perhaps as a production it is not so suited to the general Hong Kong audience (most people here look for lighthearted entertainment rather than heavy material, and it would have been difficult to follow for second language speakers as it was so aural/wordy rather than relying on visuals), but as a very sound production (pun intended), I wish them success at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

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