Review: B at The Royal Court
B is a play that could be set anywhere. Director Guillermo Calderón is Chilean-born, and the names of the four characters - Alejandra, Marcela, José Miguel, and Carmen - suggest a South American setting, but the central action of the play doesn’t necessitate a strong tie to any one place in particular. Unfortunately, though, the lack of specificity of place goes hand in hand with a lack of specificity of Calderón’s intent. Theatre doesn’t need to answer the questions it raises, but in watching B it’s difficult to know what Calderón is asking.
Alejandra (Danusia Samal) and Marcela (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) are the last remaining members of a group of violent activists, the rest having either been captured or killed. In order to carry on the work of the group, they’ve contracted veteran Jose Miguel (Paul Kaye) to make them a ‘cheese’ aka a ‘cow’ aka a ‘B word’ aka a bomb. Only a noise bomb, mind you. Ridiculous euphemisms fade out of use when Jose Miguel reveals that the bomb he’s brought them is in fact packed with nails, and suggests one of them should defecate in the casing to make the projectiles lethally infectious. Suddenly, a tool intended to shock is a weapon that could kill a passerby.
The stakes rise in a single room. Chloe Lamford’s sparse design of wood and metal make a grim cell out of the safe house, echoing the fate Alejandra will meet gladly, but Marcela will avoid at all costs. It’s a stark and constant reminder of the barrenness of their young lives, and of the consequences of their violent action. But what is it they’re fighting for?
‘Everything’, they say together. ’War’ adds Alejandra. ’And peace,’ Marcela chips in, like an explosive-toting Tweedle Dee to Alejandra’s Tweedle Dum. Darkly comic moments like these pepper the script. In presenting the pair as incompetent and uncertain in their convictions, it all gets a bit Four Lions, to be honest. All characters figure themselves as acting for that most unifying concept ‘the greater good’, but they’re entirely divided on what ‘the greater good’ actually is, and have no idea how to achieve their ends.
But where Four Lions is clearly satirical, B toes a much vaguer line. It’s neither a behind-the-scenes pastiche of activism or terrorism, but rather blurs the lines between the two. This is, on paper, a much more interesting way to go - I’d much rather see a nuanced depiction of activists radicalised by the impotency of their own action than a blunt image of an evil terrorist or a worthy protester - but B doesn’t offer nuance as much as it does underdeveloped characterisation.
It’s impossible for an audience to gauge the motivation towards violence when there’s so little to go on. An attempt is made in the second half at smash-and-grab development through three expositional monologues. Each offers welcome relief from the purposefully stilted dialogue, but each of them are unreliable; Alejandra undermines hers moments after she speaks, telling Marcela she didn’t mean any of it, Marcela’s is suspiciously melodramatic, and Jose Miguel’s is tinged with magical-realism. Subtle sound design drones menacingly beneath each monologue, going some way to creating real tension, but ultimately each speech only consolidates what we already know: that each of the three characters have wildly differing motives, and none of them should be taken readily as fact.
The 80 minute run time is perhaps to blame for a lack of development, but truthfully I was quite grateful for its brevity. B is neither a satirical take-down of terrorism, nor a nuanced depiction of the very real factors that might radicalise a person into taking violent action. If Calderón's intention is to leave his audience feeling conflicted, I don’t think it worked. It’s not that I felt total sympathy or revulsion. It's just that when the literal shit hit the fan, I’m not sure I really cared either way.
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Photo credit: Helen Murray