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ironbound: rails against the going nowhere of poverty

Production photographs: Jasmin Simmons

So desperate was I to see IRONBOUND that I wheedled and cajoled An Assorted Few to let me attend a preview on the one night I have off this week.  Letting reviewers into a preview is a huge leap of faith and rarely done, and I thought that it would be close enough to ready that I could see what was what.  But damn… if they get any better the earth will move beneath the Kings Cross Theatre and the iron of the building will shake and fold into itself. It is a production with four terrific performances, a production which challenges the viewer to listen and understand the beneath, a production which brings a life not our own, into blurred existence for our considered focus.

We meet Darja.  A 42 year old Polish immigrant waiting on a bus stop in Jersey where she is in sight of the crumbling factory that once afforded her a kind of living and she is in a fluorescent lit place that draws her in crisis.  Over the course of the play we will meet Darja over 20 years, from now when her boyfriend of convenience, Tommy, is with her in his own way, to her youth.  Back then we will observe affecting love but also the tensions of unassailable difference between she and her husband, Maks, who is convinced that music is the way out of poverty.  One other male will enter her world here in this barren place, Vic.  The conundrum in him will bring into focus a societal rending of class and circumstance.

The play is a gradual slow burn development of a narrative and relies very much on the viewer to think beyond the story in front of us.  Played out of order and with only hints about what has gone on and what will happen further down the iron track, one could spend the whole 90 minutes piecing together the before and after.  But in the lives of these working poor, the American Dream is more like slavery to mere existence and this script by the 2018 Pulitzer winner, Martyna Majok defies the audience to watch impassively.  Every action, sentence, movement screams see, engage, acknowledge.

This production is helmed by Gabrielle Scawthorn as Darja and the portrayal is replete with invisible work.  There’s the aging and regression, the syntax pulled from the page, the negotiation imploding with pragmatism and practical repercussions.  Add to this a European sensibility in the dramatic expression of her brutally honest responses.  It’s worth the price of admission to hear words leave her mouth with a deliciousness of delivery that is varied and characterful.  Listen out for ‘Courtney‘, you will never hear it this way again. And it’s not just her vocal work, Darja’s face in repose or listening is not just that!  It twists ever so slightly with a presaged indication of how she will respond and as such drives the plot in silence. The joy of seeing great acting in intimate theatres is everything.

But Director Alastair Clark knows how to find balance and not allow Scawthorn’s simmering performance to overwhelm.  Clark has a forensic interpretation of the shifting personal and interpersonal dynamics of the characters’ interactions.  They will come together, suddenly or seductively, and part just as quickly to put distance between them.  Nose to nose or at each end of the traverse, his direction completely implicates his male cast in our understanding of Darja.

As Maks, Abe Mitchell, has clear detail in his relationship, his physicality and how he handles stage business.  His is an explosive Polish passion gently evoking his world view and immigrant coloured aspiration.  Tommy (Benedict Wall ) is an extraordinarily difficult role.  He is very capable of little cruelties and he swings though emotions with limited self-awareness in a way that is organic and understandable.  Yet there is no menace about his poor understanding of kindnesses and his confusion about her and what she wants of him, and he of himself, is all surface conflict, beautifully played as depth free. The exploration of power in their scenes is disturbing. Vic (Ryan Morgan) is such a sweet and solicitous character build as we come to our understanding of him through her responses.  Morgan’s portrayal is so subtle and lost despite his belief that he is happy in his choices.

Some independent theatre has simple and effective lighting, then there’s this design by Alexander Berlarge. A bank of narrow flouros above and bordering the raised stage match the detrital bareness of the nacreous, beaten, grime of a floor. (Set: Jeremy Allen)  Allied with the 4 barn doored, open whites in the corners the lighting gives the industrial, institutional feel to the setting.  And the flick flick of the opening is terrific grounding for the production and is effectively repeated to add symbolism to some scenes. It’s a stunning rig, an exercise in required simplicity!

The audio (Benjamin Freeman) is limited but impactful, not just the background Jersey Shore of waves of traffic passing the bus stop but in the elisions.  There’s a feel of a scream in the treble echo of the opening effect and an undulation and disguised mechanistic tone to much of the scene change music.  At one stage the complexity runs from a feet tremble through the seating through the vibration of tension into the gentleness of chimes into the echoing of a long, yearning single note.  All in less than a minute of stage time. So effective.

IRONBOUND is a confluence of excellence which binds the audience to the hard, unyielding lives that  are laid out  with precision and distance before us.

IRONBOUND from An Assorted Few [Facebook] is playing from tonight at Kings Cross Theatre [Facebook] until September 15.

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