Review and Interview by Carmel Shortall
Neil Byden and Laura Kim’s thoughtful production of Pagan Love Songs for the Uninitiated reinterprets Canadian playwright, Sue Balint’s, first play – written while she was still at college.
Neil and Laura also play the man and woman who perform their apparently separate and disconnected monologues on an otherwise empty stage: they are not present for each other but as they recount their lives, dreams, nightmares and childhood memories, their individual stories not only emerge but begin to converge. They take each other’s places on stage, inhabiting the same space in turns like two soulmates inhabiting different universes, trying to communicate with each other. Their monologues begin to interweave: they start to echo each other, finish each other’s sentences and speak in unison as the connections between their lives become visible to the audience.
Several times they cry out for help as their fear and loneliness get the better of them.
He has nightmares of being killed; she of killing someone. As a child, she gets taken to museums instead of the park and never learns to play. He gets taken to church by his mother and learns to pray. He counts off his friends: his dad who he doesn’t know; Elise, who doesn’t know him, Tom who he hates for being like him and a mime who plays Jesus at church. He wants someone to break his heart so that he can feel what it is like to fall in love and follows Elise home, tapping at her window with a hairbrush. Later, the female character recounts how, almost asleep, she hears a rhythmic noise and pulls back the curtain to find a man tapping at her window.
The ending of the play is ambiguous and an initial sympathy for both characters becomes difficult to maintain as the man starts to exhibit creepy, stalker-type behaviour. Nevertheless, this production tries to overcome this problem by seeking to highlight how natural human needs and feelings may be twisted in desperation and isolation.
The performances are heartfelt and as naturalistic as possible within the constraints of the play, rendering the two character’s stories even more compelling. The direction is sensitive and manages to make the complicated fusing of the monologues seem effortless. As a new company, The Pensive Federation show a lot of promise and have tackled their first production with enthusiasm and professionalism.
Pagan Love Songs for the Uninitiated continues at The Etcetera Theatre (265 Camden High Street, above the Oxford Arms) until Thursday 11th August at 3pm. Tickets are £7.50 (concessions are £5).
I spoke to Laura and Neil after the show to ask how the show came about and what makes The Pensive Federation tick.
They met through the Old Vic New Voices Project in 2010. They had both studied and been involved in theatre before but now had full-time jobs. The Old Vic Project was their first foray into theatre for a while – they both felt that something was missing: getting it back was a great feeling. Neil said that they had been treated as professionals at the Old Vic and they still get advice and support, including rehearsal space for Pagan Love Songs.
At the Project they found that they had similar ideas and interests about drama. Laura said that stories about people were paramount: simple storytelling with no pyrotechnics. They want to concentrate on “those tiny bits of life that get forgotten, people who’ve fallen through the cracks, misfits – not the kings and queens”. Their interest in modern relationships focuses on how difficult it is for people to connect, on missed opportunities and ‘what if?’ I agreed that Pagan Love Songs for the Uninitiated certainly ticks these boxes.
The next logical step was to keep the impetus going and so they formed The Pensive Federation. Neil said that Laura already had the script and the idea of producing and performing the play: all they needed was to find a venue.
Laura mentioned that although Sue Balint wrote the play when only 19 or 20, it was from the heart, sincere. “The words have a dreamlike, poetic quality” and the play’s apparent lack of structure while misleading, still meant that the lines had been hard to learn.
For the future, both Laura and Neil would like to collaborate with Sue Balint on a more mature work. In the short term they would like to collaborate with other people who, like themselves, are working. They envisage something like a series of ten-minute plays with simple stories.
For those who are interested in getting involved in one of the Old Vic’s New Voices projects – there will be another one next March, 2012. Who knows – it might lead to your own production running at The Camden Fringe.