views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Sanctuary
Tristan Bates Theatre
15th August 2017

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for Sanctuary

Photography provided by Now You Know Productions

Ever woken up and not remembered the night before? Spare a thought then for Kari (Elizabeth Robin) who can't remember how she ended up in Sanctuary. What's more, she's missing more than just a few nights, is covered in wires and there's some sort of artificial intelligence communicating with her in the guise of an old-fashioned television set, in an attempt to be calming. No, it wouldn't make us feel calm either in those circumstances...

Sanctuary is another post-apocalyptic play (the genre of the moment), although unlike many others, it's only set a few decades into the future. Kari is evidently a soldier of some description and the world outside has presumably gone very wrong. Given the soothing name of her environment and her sterile, white clothes, we wonder if Sanctuary is a hospital where she can recover from her injuries, or perhaps a refuge where she can safely hide out from the enemy, whoever that might be. Someone has been looking after her thus far and keeping her alive. However, as the rather more suspicious lone solider herself muses, she could just as feasibly be a prisoner of war. Playwright and director Anthony Orme gives us several possibilities to consider and then leaves us to work it out.

Kari's initial frustration is palpable as Robin races around the stage, swearing aggressively, banging on the walls and feeling around for an exit which isn't there. Given her character's military training, it seems odd that she admits defeat so soon after this violent outburst, however perhaps we're being too hard on someone who has both just come out of a medically induced coma and thinks all her loved ones are dead. Whilst Kari understands that the Sanctuary Activity Monitor or SAM (Catalina Blackman) is just an algorithm and can't provide her with any real companionship, every survivor needs a Mr Wilson and the TV set is just a more talkative version of that volleyball.

The most interesting aspect to this play is not where or what Sanctuary is, but how Kari copes with remembering the war. By having her talk to a seemingly insentient object, this allows Orme to let us into Kari's complicated thought process and understand what she is thinking and feeling. Flashbacks are dealt with viscerally, with Kari's beloved Jessica (Blackman) bursting into the room and reenacting tiny fragments of memory. Each time a new recollection is unearthed, like Kari, we begin to piece together the trauma that has led her to her amnesia. Guilt, rage, sadness, regret - we see Robin flit through a wide range of emotions. What we don't fully touch on is the depth of the relationship between Kari and Jessica, which impedes our emotional reaction to the revelations.

Setting the play in the 2040s allows Kari and Jessica's positions as senior front-line soldiers to go unquestioned, and for the room to have more possibilities. We've made such leaps in science and technology in recent years, we're willing to accept that in just a few decades, SAM may be able to control Sanctuary in ways that Siri wouldn't be able to. Beyond that though, there's not a lot to anchor the play to that moment in the future. It might therefore be worth precipitating the action even further into the future, to allow for the audience's creativity to wander even further when imagining what lies outside Sanctuary.

Sanctuary offers us an hour of respite from the real world and begins to explore PTSD in a relatable way. For her part, Robin gives us an unflinching performance and showcases a great deal of versatility. It's an interesting single location play with the right amount of unanswered queries, but Orme's premise has the potential to have us weeping buckets and yet doesn't move us in that way. With some minor tweaking to create more of an emotional impact, Sanctuary could be exactly what we need.

Sanctuary ran from 14th to 19th August 2017 at the Tristan Bates Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)



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