Mad Forest | by Caryl Churchill

Directed by Tom Tull

Dates 13th to 17th February 2018

In 1990, the playwright Caryl Churchill and ten students from the Central School of Speech and Drama travelled to Bucharest to research and develop a new play. Whilst studying in Romania, they spoke to local drama students and their families about the revolution that was unfolding before them. Mad Forest involves real life statements from people that were living through the revolution. The play creates a web of interwoven perspectives on the impact of the revolution, giving the audience insights into the revolution including the use of Verbatim theatre. The play lays bare how political and social upheaval can split families and their loyalties.

The cast in rehearsal.

Theatre Life : REVIEW

The sound of Tracey Chapman singing Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution indeed prepares the audience for what is to come.  Mad Forest tells the story of what happened before, during and after the Romanian Revolution including the real-life statements from people that were living through the revolution.  It portrays an array of perspectives through these times with insight as to how it affected the people caught up in it.

The stage at the Old Court Theatre provides the perfect setting for this play.  Intimate enough to capture the audience yet large enough to cope with the complicated text and what that involves.

With 11 in the cast, many playing at least two characters it almost seemed overwhelming at first but once the stories/scenes developed it took off with a real punch.  The transitions between each scene were all very well executed.  Having the cast remain on stage throughout the whole piece was essential and the costume and prop changes were slick and barely noticeable.

All the actors were committed to their individual characters each and every time they appeared and through the first half, really gave a sense of the desperation and fear they were living through as well as a sense of family relations.  They all really must be congratulated on immersing themselves into such chaotic piece and bring these stories to life.  A mention must go to Richard Dawes as he created seven different characters throughout the play and each one was absolutely perfect!

The end of the first half changed in mood and kudos to Tom Tull for his direction of the Verbatim theatre section as it really packed a punch.  With very little movement and the cast being on the edge of the stage it brought an intensity that reflected in what the actors were saying.  With some extremely emotional dialogue and the national anthem sung so patriotically, it was very moving.

I loved the lighting design created by Jack Hathaway that gave a backdrop of the Romanian flag, flanked by large pictures of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife.  Lighting throughout was great and sound effects timed well and helped to embellish the scenes.

Tom Tull has really taken time to understand Mad Forest and that shows in this production.  His dedication, along with the rest of the cast has created a thoroughly moving, thought provoking piece of theatre.

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.

Michelle Jacobs

February 2018

Tickets are £10 Concessions £9.00 (except Friday and Saturday.) Available from the Chelmsford Civic Theatre box office, by calling 01245 606505 or click HERE to book via the Chelmsford Theatres website.

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