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Review – Caged Time – Shakespeare North Playhouse

WITH his flair for gripping dialogue and obvious love of the absurd and surreal, any new play by Oliver Back is something to be anticipated. In this double bill entitled Caged Time he brings together two shorts, Echo of Nothing and Strip, each of which is a two hander.

Liverpool based theatre company Silent Gutter encourages audiences to focus on the blank spaces surrounding what is visible. In this duo of plays, with their intense, dark writing, reading between the lines is an essential. As was made clear in a post show discussion with the two directors and casts, the full meaning of both plays is something that is intentionally left very much open to interpretation.

We are promised “an existential boxing match, a metaphysical game of chess, a duel with language” and it is hard to find a better way of describing the overall feel of what appears here on stage. In Echo of Nothing, Kavanau and Miles, played by Faye Caddick and Elspeth Mhairi Todd, are engaged in a dark, often vicious verbal sparring match. Meanwhile Strip presents us with Michael Hawkins and Damien Hughes as Derren and Kev, who are similarly faced off, in a more gradual but every bit as menacing a fashion.

Caddick and Mhairi Todd maintain a tightly coiled tension throughout their performance, which threatens to explode at any moment. Directed by Harry Machray, Echo of Nothing holds us on the edge of our seats as we watch the persistent manipulation of one character by another. Hawkins and Hughes are directed in Strip by Emma Turner, and here we are similarly held but this time watching a seemingly inexplicable campaign of verbal torture.

What comes across in both plays (at least to my eyes) and links them together is a sense of coercive and manipulative control, as one person seeks to dehumanise another. Even despite moments of dark humour – especially apparent in Strip – the unsettling power games that people play with one another are powerfully portrayed. Only at the end, with the brief appearance of a guard played by Michael Standish, are we offered some sense of partial and momentary closure.

Whether as a warning of what harm humans can do to each other, even sometimes with words alone, or as a mesmerising and thought provoking exhibition match, this war of dialogue leaves us with as many questions as it does answers, and it challenges us to be aware.

Star rating – 4 stars
Review by Nigel Smith

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