Before seeing any performance, I quite like the idea of not knowing a great deal about the story or production beforehand. Even if I had researched this production of Karagula by Phillip Ridley, I don't know if it would have offered much clarity anyway. The Soho Theatre production is described as being a world premiere of epic proportions - and I can solidly agree with that. In terms of content, performance and experience: I think the only word fit to describe it would be 'epic'.
For the staging of Karagula, the creative team have built an entire universe, located in Tottenham Hale. Now that's not where the play is set, but it is where the production makes it's home, at The Styx event space a few minutes walk from the tube. On arrival, I was met with the smell of freshly baked pizza and a DIYers dream world, made out of various combinations of wooden planks. Although the more clumsy of customers may tread with caution over the uneven landscape, I think it is a wonderful use of the space and a real passageway into what you are about to experience. On the next part of the journey, you enter the theatre to what I would describe as runway seating. There are two rows of seats facing each other on two levels and two scaffolding structures at either end. This is the real magic of leaving the confines of Theatreland, where a warehouse space can be used to create a limitless landscape for performance.
There is great ambition in the staging of Karagula, created by Shawn Soh, which delivers a strong vision you can get onboard with. The style and texture of the designs all play a part in the telling of the story, being very vital and not overly fussy. Before the interval, a large table stretches the length of the runway, and as an audience member you are taken into the scene alongside the characters. In another moment, a white room is dragged into centre stage, and we voyeuristically peer through the perspex walls to see the drama unfolding. For this, microphones pick up the sound of the conversation taking place, and the sound of the static creates a perfectly tense environment. The sound and lighting merges with the action, breathing each breath with the actors. You see the sheer scale of ambition, and it's completely fulfilled in practice.
Similarly to the set, each actor on the stage is vital to the production and the telling of its story. I cannot praise the casting enough for choosing such a great mix of actors that manage to work together as one unit. The tones of the show jump between serious, humorous and absurd - so the actors certainly have their work cut-out. Lanre Malaolu, as the newly appointed Grand Marshal, brings his larger-than-life personality through every movement of his body. Alongside him, Obi Abili demonstrates strong characterization in every scene, with great power behind each line he utters. Lynette Clarke was certainly a stand out performer, delivering great commitment scene after scene, in every scenario. The variety of emotions she managed to achieve appeared very naturally and gave believability in a world that was, in fact, quite unbelievable.
After the first act, be sure to leave with all your belongings, as you return from the interval into a space transformed. Now in a more traditional raked seating, light and sound is once again used to transport the audience into the story. Characters acting amongst the seats, sounds from within the walls and lights that pulsate with each note. I don't think I've ever had a theatre experience where I managed to detach myself from reality and feel part of what was happening around me.
In the beginning, I was very unsure of what to make of Karagula. But as the story unfolded, I was gradually transported to universe of sheer adoration. The Philip Ridley play is wonderfully imaginative and is perfectly paired with the creative vision of director, Max Barton, and designer, Shawn Soh. The space in Tottenham is fully utilized and life is given to the space, through each truly talented actor that inhabits it. Overall, I can say that Karagula is well and truly, out of this world.
Karagula by Philip Ridley runs until Saturday 9th July 2016 at Styx, London.
Photo credit: Lara Genovese