Swan Song

Sat 11th – Fri 17th August 2012


Ettie Bailey-King

at 01:02 on 16th Aug 2012



If 'Swan Song' were a book, it would be a well-thumbed copy of Jean-Paul Sartre, carefully laid open so that you can read the cover (‘cos it’s terribly clever). On second thought, it might be Diderot, who gets a good name-check and supplies a sizeable chunk of the play’s subtext. This play has origami swans and chorus figures in black polo necks and dark glasses - it’s ‘clever’, but unfortunately, it knows it and wants you to know this too.

Things start out well (apart from some upside-down signs and a couple of knocked-over suitcases) and the initial scenes are witty, sharp and engaging. The dialogue is pretentious, but fabulously so. An aloof sage (of black polo neck fame) watches over the protagonist. His speeches are outlandishly over-portentous, telling us (amongst other things) that reality, cognition and freewill are not as they appear. Big stuff. But it works, and is delivered with a generous nod and wink toward the audience; a cosy intimation that this existentialist spiel is all itself part of a bigger game. The ludic language is a perfect parody of – well, plays exactly like this one. But the kind of person who would write this is, according to 'Swan Song', a “pretentious or Stoppardian tw*t". So 'Swan Song' is a super-ironic, self-aware crtitique of its own meta-theatricality, right? Wrong.

We now move into the play’s mature phase, and there is so much to enjoy that I briefly forget that I haven’t read any Diderot. Gone are the glorious jokes from the opening scenes (the mention of ‘sex, sweat and bowling’ in one sentence is a particular favourite) and instead we meet curious, carefully-constructed characters who sidle in and out of one another’s lives being devastatingly clever and attractive. I briefly fall in love with Marla (Amelia Sparling) because she is ethereal and brilliant and spouts magnificently tortured poetry. She shoots down pretension (but with uber-pretension, playing both hero and villain in the ongoing battle to decode impenetrable language and actually have a conversation with one another).

Together with Hector (Tim Gibson) the pair’s emotional dynamics are frequently raw and convincing. They navigate some fairly dubious dialogue with remarkable assurance, sustaining an admirable level of tension and credibility where others would merely sound absurd. Writer Katie Ebner-Landy as Marie and Patrick Edmond as the conflicted figure Patrick do a stirling job of fleshing out their respective characters, but frequently fall foul of the silliness of speech like “I want to steal yourself and give it back to you”.

It’s odd that one of the best things about this play is the dense, poetic texture of the language – it’s the inclusion of weird, Plath-esque imagery like ‘the white-eyed back of my neck’ – because this is also what makes it such tough going. When Sparling starts to deliver lines like"‘[D.H.Lawrence] bleeds from being so heavily categorised" and "the stale anonymity of the suburbs", the magic begins to slip.

The plot is deeply thought-provoking, but confused. It’s a brave venture and that’s even before you consider the extraordinary decision to change the cast members around and leave large sections open to improvisation. It certainly puts its money where its mouth is, in that it’s easy to explicitly critique ‘big’ ideas like reality/imagation/freewill, but much riskier to do so at the implicit and structural level. Bold? Yes. It may even be many people’s idea of a cracking night out. But there is a kind of discontinuity between the scenes: the tone shifts and yet without creating a sense of plot or character progression. When some grand – and dramatically powerful – revelations do emerge, they erupt rather hastily onto the plot. The closing scene poses questions that, to my mind, were neither teased out from the preceding scenes nor built usefully upon what came before. It felt stickle-brick and more than a little contrived. That said, my confusion and incomprehension may be exactly what 'Swan Song' was going for all along.


Ellen Smyth

at 09:58 on 16th Aug 2012



'Swan Song' is adventurous, thought-provoking and highly illogical. Trouble and Strife productions have collaborated with concept artist Edouard Groult to form an elegant production. 'Swan Song' has been beautifully written by Katie Ebner-Landy and Catherine Haines – it is an original, well executed and clever piece. As is delves deeper into the poetry Marla leaves behind as her final farewell – her swan song - it provides ample food for thought. The entire cast is captivating and Amelia Sparling stands out in particular with a glittering performance as the somewhat tormented soul of Marla. The relationship between Hector (Tim Gibson) and Marla (Amelia Sparling) is particularly enchanting to watch. They appear to exist on the periphery of their own love story, which is overseen instead by two all-knowing black-clad puppeteers.

'Swan Song' exists in reality as well as in a dream-like state, exploring how difficult it can be to unite the two. It verges on an alienating level of ambition which for the most part left me bewildered. As much as I found the poetry to be superb, 'Swan Song' lost me in its ‘Literary Goose Chase.’ Much like Hector, I feel as though I’ve won a blank cheque for happiness. But I’m unsure how much it’s worth. 'Swan Song' explores how tricky it can be to understand and interpret poetry, language, and people but be warned: it does not make any attempt to solve the enigma these often present. Instead it is an example of the barriers these can build against us. 'Swan Song' is highly experimental, using a unique and interesting combination of animation and live performance.


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