17 May 2010
Kate Larsen reviews Face Front's pithy production, with a new brand of inclusive theatre on tour at the Oval House, Harrow Arts Centre, Stratford Circus and Trestle Arts Base, London
"She loves me, she loves me not. I love you. I loved you."
Counting the Ways sketches out the routines, rituals and insecurities of a marriage (or, in this case, two marriages) over back gardens and clothes lines: of words, of food, and a life lived so long together that you’re no longer sure what love means. And whether it comes with “a little hatred with each thrust. Both ways.”
In Face Front’s production (first staged last year), the long-married couple at the heart of Edward Albee’s play are played by two couples in a multi-lingual and multi-sensory experience (right down to free sweeties provided at the end).
One of the couples (Ilan Dwek and Jean St Clair) perform in British Sign Language (BSL) while the other (John French and Catrin Menna) perform the same script in spoken English. French and Menna also sign occasionally, and at times the couples respond to each other’s partners (in an unusual kind of wife swapping).
Albee is best known for the much darker “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, and there are quite a few similarities between the two plays. They both use clever language to dazzle and confuse. They both depict the high highs and low lows of relationships, and both grimly predict an inevitable and uncontrollable decline.
It will happen to us all sooner or later, apparently, when our lovely marriage beds become two singles with a table in between. And we should be grateful that it’s not worse. Cheery thought.
Access is just as important as the script in this production. In the programme, Director Jeni Draper says, “I love giving audiences the same information but at different times. It requires them to take a leap of faith that they aren’t missing anything. But trust me, they aren’t.”
This approach really does take accessible theatre a big step forward (full integration, not just interpretation), but if you hadn’t bought the programme and read it beforehand, there was no way for deaf members of the audience to know that they weren’t missing out. One man in front of me had to ask for reassurance from a fellow audience member.
The bilingual production did provide extra richness for those who speak both languages: with some added jokes in BSL (“no mime, please”) and some funny slip-ups for those of us still not quite fluent (reading “my wife’s in Portugal” instead of “my wife is dead”).
The integration of George, the audio describer, adds a completely new character to the mix. He is both narrator and friendly neighbour whilst providing audio description via pre-recorded voice-over and almost-not-nearly-there whispers for those using AD head-sets.
I did wonder how Albee would feel about George, the one character he didn’t create, getting the final word. (But it is a great final word).
Loves: A production that sees access as more than a last-minute add-on. (Oh, and the free sweeties).
Loves not: Some initial access confusion, but overall a unique and exciting interpretation of a wonderfully satirical and poignant play.
Counting the Ways is now on a London tour, playing at Harrow Arts Centre (18th May), Stratford Circus (19th and 20th May) and Trestle Arts Base (21st May).