views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Awakening
Jack Studio Theatre
13th September 2016


Grace Cookey-Gam and Alex Dowding as Agnes and Johannes

Photography © Vincent Rowley

If you can't do the time, don't do the crime. But what happens after the appropriate sentence has been served? Can rehabilitation work in all instances? Julian Garner forces us to confront our own morality in The Awakening by giving us a particularly difficult scenario to assess. If you manage to make it to the end of the two hours feeling completely confident in any liberal beliefs you harboured on venturing into the Jack, then you're a better person than I am. There's an insidious sense of unease deliberately built into this production.

Johannes (Alex Dowding) is a dangerous prisoner, kept in isolation and visited only by Agnes (Grace Cookey-Gam), a do-gooder working for the prison service. We have to assume he's committed a fairly heinous crime to be separated from the other captives and for none of his own friends and family to want to see him. However it's immediately obvious he has limited mental capability, he's childlike, compliant and is disgusted by his sexual desires, believing them to be incompatible with the teachings set out in the bible gifted to him by Agnes. The gulf between what we assume he must have done and our perception of the manchild in front of us is difficult to reconcile. Prison guard Iverson (Jarren Dalmeda) don't believe in second chances and as he attacks Johannes, we find ourselves wondering who the real monster is. Could Johannes' crime justify this reaction? Did he even know what he was doing? Does it matter?

Agnes' dogged determination to rescue Johannes from his cell and reintegrate him into society results in him lodging with Unn (Joana Nastari), a fiercely independent young woman who has found herself solely responsible for running a farm through family tragedy. The inevitable - inappropriate? - relationship forged between a lonely Johannes and Unn leads to some big questions about morality, religion and justice. You could easily find yourself justified in arguing whether Johannes, Unn or Agnes is to blame for how the plot unfolds, with plenty to support your chosen stance. Interestingly though this debate will likely reveal an unconscious bias you didn't know you had. Garner's work is certainly a play to challenge rather than necessarily entertain.

The characters are all deeply interesting, multifaceted and acted well, with a lot of Madelaine Moore's direction to be commended. Yet there are plenty of lulls in the first half, which creates an early disconnect between the audience and the action. Whilst silence can be a powerful tool, the plot feels strangely uneven and with far more scene changes written into it than a small production like this can reasonably manage well. There is a clear attempt to make the transitions as quick and as smooth as possible, with sound designer Max Graef's beautiful and evocative outdoor soundscape doing much to mitigate these pauses. However we do still note some of the energy dissipating from what is already very much a slow burner.

Whilst Johannes and Unn are fascinating and their behaviour seems entirely credible, the same cannot be said of Agnes. Although she initially seems oblivious to the feelings of abandonment harboured by previous pet project Uun, she later displays a very unchristian resentment towards the younger woman when it becomes apparent that Johannes has formed an attachment to Uun at the exclusion of all others including her. This very human response rounds out the character somewhat, however as the other events unfold, it seems unlikely she doesn't react more strongly, with the writing a little flat. Given her role in the story it's a shame this part isn't written as believably as the others.

Certain moments lack a visceral ugliness and we aren't pushed as far as we could be, however The Awakening is nonetheless a fascinating tale staged thoughtfully. A bold debut from DL Productions which demonstrates a commitment to making interesting and provocative theatre.

The Awakening opened on 6th September and runs until 24th September 2016 at the Jack Studio Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Crofton Park (National Rail)

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