EFR - Reviews of Sanctuary

Sanctuary

Mon 17th – Sat 29th August 2015

reviews

Luke Howarth

at 12:44 on 21st Aug 2015

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Susanne Sulby’s one-woman play about the senselessness of war has been several decades in the making, beginning with the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s. The years that have since passed inform the universalism of Sulby’s message; the play is an invitation to consider how similar one war is to another, incorporating extracts from Hiroshima survivors, Auden, and (naturally) Wilfred Owen, the latter delivered in a persuasive Scottish snarl.

Sanctuary primarily flits between a disillusioned foreign correspondent, reporting the latest developments from Syria, or Albania, or Gaza, with a disinterested urgency that we recognise; a POW in Kosovo, confronting her own CCTV camera with wide eyes, her anguished face projected onto the screen behind her; and a mother, presumably closely resembling Sulby herself, watching from her home with horror as each conflict is reported.

Sulby depicts each contrasting character with a unifying conviction; the sincerity of her beliefs can be felt behind each impassioned monologue or poetry extract. There are some nice touches that help her tell the story; her letters of support to American soldiers unfold on the projected screen, and, in an inspired moment of intertextuality, an ancient Persian poem by Rumi tells us that she “did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story” - the line hangs in the air, waiting to be completed by Owen’s (already heard) ‘pro patria mori’.

The experience is intimate. On more than one occasion, it feels as if Sulby is speaking directly to you; the fourth wall is almost entirely dissolved by the playwright’s performed pedagogy. The tangibility of her identification with certain characters frequently renders the piece into a lecture; when the moralising mother living in the safety of the USA implores us to drop food and toys rather than bombs, the play becomes a TedTalk.

This is the major fault of Sanctuary; the play is far too didactic; its outrage consistently sounds sanctimonious. Sulby’s message is about the power of universal love, but it frequently sounds naïve, or condescending. We are effectively told that we know the solution if we thought about it a bit harder: a message some audience members might find difficult to stomach.

That said, this is an impassioned and well-intentioned piece, and Sulby’s assured performance has the potential to develop our thinking about perhaps the most important contemporary conversation.

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Mel Beckerleg

at 12:51 on 21st Aug 2015

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Sanctuary is a play that positions itself to deliver a challenging message on the effect of conflict on women, yet confused performances and distracting multimedia techniques mean that it sadly misses the mark.

The play begins and we are introduced to three central characters, a war correspondent, a mother watching from home, and a female hostage. Suzanne Sulby shows an impressive dexterity of performance, particularly vocally, and yet the performance fails to engage. As it cycles through the three, each new monologue fails to bring new ideas or thoughts, instead becoming tedious and repetitive. It’s interesting that a play that makes so much of how different conflicts all merge into one, chooses to devote so much time to reading out-of-context headlines.

Limp sound effects do little to add to the atmosphere and Selby is certainly not helped by the giant projector behind her. Moving images are a distraction from her performance, and the spelling out of Sulbys lines before she says them feels rather like a clumsy powerpoint presentation. This is particularly notable in the case of the series of fairly dull letters that are read out, and simultaneously displayed, word by word, behind her.

The one time the screen is employed successfully is the initial video footage of a woman held hostage, which allows us to explore the contrast between the images broadcast on TV screens, and the genuine people behind them. Still the effect is lost when the footage becomes close-ups of her face, unnecessary for such an expressive actor in such a small space.

The play comes into its own as the central characters begin to take a backseat, and Selby performs a number of poems and monologues. These bring moments of depth and fresh perspectives. Selby’s performance of Dulce et Decorum est is hair-raisingly powerful.

The play does weave together some challenging issues – the powerless of those who watch war from afar and the terror of those directly caught up in it. Ultimately though, the central message seems to be a vague “why can’t we all get along?” and the claim that “our love is strong enough” is disappointingly unconvincing.

There’s also an uncomfortable gender dichotomy; men, it is implied, are war-mongerers, and women are the ones with the sensitivity and kindness to fix the problem. The reduction of PTSD to essentially ‘men have feelings too’ comes off as a gross over-simplification. For those who do see the show, it is worth having a chat with Sulby, who offers a talkback after the performance.

Sanctuary might be a piece with plenty to say, yet its message of hope is confused and in the end, it regrettably fails to engage or inspire.

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