Very, Very Mad World
What do you know about the Romanian Revolution of 1989? If you’re old enough like me, you will probably remember the headlines about the execution of the Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena after 25 years of totalitarian power. You may also know that the uprising began on 21st December 1989 and heralded the fall of Communism across the Eastern bloc. Headlines go down in history but they don’t give the people a voice, the people caught up in and whose lives are forever impacted by the aftermath of these momentous events.
Caryl Churchill’s experimental play, Mad Forest certainly goes some way to putting that record straight and this latest production by Chelmsford Theatre Workshop is a creditable effort at bringing those voices to life. The play does not follow standard theatrical conventions, opening with a series of vignettes depicting life in pre-revolution Romania featuring for example, the despairing queue for a dwindling supply of meat, the young girl denied an abortion by her doctor, the Securitate Officer just doing his job and the Orthodox Priest being forced to question his faith against the backdrop of the secular Communist state. The varying human emotions from pride to resignation and anger are well expressed by the versatile cast members who each play a range of roles in the snapshot scenes and remain silently on stage throughout, simply retiring to the sides when the action moves on.
Under the first time direction of Tom Tull, the playwright’s reasons for these initially baffling and seemingly unconnected scenes and characters becomes more clear as the piece progresses. The scripted vignettes make way for the Verbatim Theatre method to literally take centre stage as we are treated to raw and personal first hand accounts by the characters one by one. We are transported there with the bewildered young housewife, the exhausted student doctor working with limited hospital resources, the loyal but confused Securitate Officer and others as events unfold from December 21st, 1989. We are there, too, to see the impact of the aftermath of the uprising on families (Steve Holding-Sutton’s portrayal of the adopted orphan is particularly powerful) friends and in a particularly stark and arresting scene from their trial, the Ceaucescus themselves. The fantastical encounter between Richard Dawes’ Transylvanian vampire and Jack Shepherd’s stray dog can clearly be seen to be a metaphor for the order of Communism giving way to the chaos of the longed for capitalist Utopia.
As the play closes, it raises more questions than it answers, both about the relative merits of Communism and Capitalism (who can take seriously the values and authority of a national leader with a gold toilet??) but also about the nature of theatre itself. The cast and crew should be congratulated just for bringing a sense of these questions to Chelmsford.