Saturday, June 22, 2013

Conflicted Theatre, 'The Scarlet Letter': Waters of Babylon

Photo: Enrique Carnicero

Millennium Hall, Cork Midsummer Festival
Jun 21-30

Cork Midsummer has arrived! First up: Conflicted Theatre's adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorn's classic The Scarlet Letter coming up just as soon as I become a member of a God-fearing community ...

Above the congregation of audience members assembled for Conflicted Theatre's latest production lies suspended in the air a series of three dimensional triangles, spelling out the sentenced 'A' that brands the heroine of the tale. Where a stage at one wall of an auditorium assumes a two-dimensional view to the spectator, this company strives to surround and immerse their audience with three-dimensional awareness, as seen in last year's 18-35. There we were guided through the abandoned corridors of a former government building, the scenery around us morphing as we go along. Gaff tape was used to mark our path, and the panoramic positioning of actors with their machine-like shuffling and musical harmonies tailored the scene. Unfortunately, about five minutes into this adaptation of The Scarlet Letter such tricks are exhausted. Director Gavin McEntee has run into a dead end with Hawthorn's booming text blocking his only way out.

Guilty of adultery, new mother Hester Prynne (or 'Esther Ryan' as they've dubbed her here, perhaps to relocate her to an Irish setting) is sentenced to wearing a scarlet 'A' as a sign of shame. She is tormented and ostracisied by her community, including her thought-to-be-dead husband who is committed to learning the identity of the child's father. When hearing rumours that young Pearl will be taken from her, Esther pleas to the minister of her church who persuades the governor to allow her to retain custody. But the minister's health declines, his guilty conscience scratching a crimson 'A' across his heart, leaving Esther to plot a desperate escape for them.

The company haven't interrogated this text so much as skimmed over the main plot developments. The characters are rendered one-dimensional and the positioning of actors feels aimless at times with some angles completely obstructed by the layout of the room. McEntee tries to juggle a lot at once and it all falls to the ground. His attempts to inject more visuals results in hokey use of blinking red lights, a cringey shake of the pyramids hanging overhead to try tremble proceedings, and a satanic possession of the corniest variety. Add a muffled sound system to the mix and this production lands far from a professional standard.

Conflicted Theatre fail to chart the emotional arc of Hawthorne's story, so much so that you wouldn't think The Scarlet Letter doubles as a love story as well as a tale of sin. Here's hoping the company returns to their devising methods, where their intentions seem more certain.

What did everybody else think?

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