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23rd February 2017

Review: Artificial Salt

Part of the MIFTAS season by the University of Manchester Drama Society the ambitious and daring nature of this play pays off

Student theatre is something that is looked down on with scorn by many in the art world. People often view it unfairly as nothing more than poorly written plays, with formulaic storylines, and suspect acting. Julia Morgan’s Artificial Salt; the latest offering in new writing from the University of Manchester Drama Society, has made absolutely sure to dispel these misguided myths and stereotypes about the world of student theatre. Performed at the Wonder Inn in the city centre, audience members are first met with next to no staging, simple wash lighting and, three actors wearing matching plain white t-shirts and blue jeans. There is nothing out of the ordinary about this, but what many in the audience do not realise is that this bareness is only going to increase in the form of the piece itself. This is because Artificial Salt is an absurdist play, in the truest sense of the word. Therefore the audience are subjected to a play with no linear storyline, or plot for that matter, but instead a kind of episodic dramatic reading that can sound completely nonsensical on first listening.

With absurdist theatre there is, of course, always method to the madness, however the sign of an effective absurdist play is whether the method is seen by the audience, as well as the writer. Artificial Salt’s biggest strength is undoubtedly that it passes this test with flying colours. Morgan’s script is absolutely stunning in its vocabulary and ability to exploit all the wonderful facets of the English language. She is clearly someone with a vast knowledge in this area and it is through her wonderful use of language that the play begins to develop meaning. The dialogue is rife with alliteration, word association between actors, and even occasionally rhyme which all serve to create moments of great comedy and subtext.

This would not be possible without the strong performances all round from Molly Steadman, Mary Morris, James Meredith, and even the offstage voice of Anna Merabishvili who reads the stage directions with excellent clarity. Steadman and Morris, both simply named woman one and two have superb chemistry and their high energy performances allow them to bounce off one another well, in comparison to Meredith’s lone ‘man’. Meredith is equally adept at playing his role with an enduring intensity; the converse nature of these differing performances almost certainly being a comment on gender roles and sexuality. A special mention must also go to Meredith for a hilariously ridiculous monologue describing a fictional machine, which I was unaware until after the performance that he completely changes and improvises every night.

Action and its relationship to language are also explored in Artificial Salt and Meredith’s speech is a good example of this. With very little movement accompanying his confusing dialogue, both the audience and Meredith are left bogged down in the futility of language to great comic effect. In fact this becomes a theme that Morgan uses regularly throughout the play, as many of the long sections of speech are performed as just that; sections of speech. Where the play becomes fascinating is through conversely elongated sections of silent and often stylised movement, like when Steadman repeatedly stretched a piece of lace cloth across her face, or when Morris and Steadman wash Meredith’s feet in deathly silence. These were at times mesmerising to watch, and even for a play so steeped in language, I found myself begging to know what these characters would be saying while the sequences were going on!

One particular scene stuck in the memory as it perfectly utilised both language and action, in a display of how situation and the way in which we say something can completely change its meaning. In it Steadman repeatedly recites the Lord’s Prayer as she is wrapped in a thick white sheet and bound with rope. She becomes more and more distressed until her words become screams. I found this to be genuinely chilling and it can be read as a critique of religion, in the way that so many people’s enduring faith can supply no direct answers. This is made all the more effective with the addition of the beautifully composed score from John Pierce O’Reilly and Bonnie Schwarz, which enhances the horror of much of this repetitious movement.

Make no mistake; ‘Artificial Salt’ is not for everyone. As an audience member, one has to really focus to reap the rewards that the piece can offer and there will be those who do not tend to go to the theatre for experiences such as this. The brevity of the play (at around 50 minutes) is a great strength in this respect, as if it was much longer it could become difficult to remain totally engaged. My singular criticism would be that for a play so devoid of narrative, I found it slightly unnecessary and distracting to be broken up further by so many quick black outs and long scene changes. This is simply picking holes in an otherwise brilliant production. However special mention must go to the University of Manchester Drama Society for putting their confidence in a play that is so different and experimental to much of the student fare. For those who think they would not find Artificial Salt enjoyable, I would highly advise to look out for more work from Julia Morgan in the future. If her penchant for linguistics, writing and directing are anything to go by here, then her next production will surely be something that you would be mad to miss.

Artificial Salt is part of the MIFTAS season and is playing at the Wonder Inn from the 20th to the 22nd of February.

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