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Breathing Corpses (Oberon Modern Plays)

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This is a play of polarity. Reality jostles with fiction as the audience navigates the set, which is formed of “rooms” delimited by cardboard boxes. In the centre there is pile of these boxes, interspersed with television screens that light up in between scenes, giving the audience a context beyond the lives we are prying into. The dialogue itself is scattered with polar oppositions, and the banal sits next to the profound; the lines which will turn out to be crucial to the plot and the play are lost in everyday speech. This banality undercuts the unravelling of the lives of the characters: when workman Ray is told that his boss has inexplicably taken all the doors off the hinges in his house in a moving and pitiful manifestation of post-traumatic stress, Ray asks “Whadya use?” and is satisfied by the response that Jim used the screwdriver lying nearby. The audience however, astonished and bemused by this and injected with dramatic irony, could never be satisfied. Another polarity: the play forces the past and the future to oppose one another, an opposition which works in such a way that any attempt to understand the chronology will ultimately fail.

We are told both everything and nothing. We are given all the clues which, when followed, lead us nowhere: I left the Keble O’Reilly with a satisfying sense of dissatisfaction. In another scene, Jim is a manager of a storage facility and Elaine is his gently concerned wife. Jim has been haunted by something and while Elaine tries to remain cheerful, it’s hard going with Jim’s depression. Later another couple are also having difficulties but this time they are dangerously physical. Kate is trying to run her business but there are distractions from her boyfriend and his dog. Tempers flare. Danger in Ben’s behaviour is obvious. What will happen? In the last scene, Amy is cleaning up another hotel room and again sees a person under the covers. This turns out to be Charlie who is really good looking with a charming nature and a supposedly unusual job. This will hardly be the only review to suggest that hot young playwright Laura Wade seems obsessed with death. Colder Than Here, which opened less than a month ago at Soho, dispassionately followed a dying woman's preparations for eternity. Breathing Corpses is an elusive tale that observes a gruesome cycle of linked deaths. Well, we’re not afraid of you! [cheers] To this home-grown enemy, to the faceless and so-called ‘cultural’ terrorists, this “Front”, these Turquoise militants, I say…up yours!!

Past productions

The Story. Breathing Corpses has opened the Coal Mine’s third season. It’s a play full of mystery. One of the many mysteries here is that the characters are breathing and alive, but over the course of the play, some of them will not be. Oh, yes – it’s the end of days! But who exactly is complaining? The Chinese are investing in cloud seeding. Saudi Arabia is making a fortune out of drought-resistant crop technology. They’re growing food in dustbowls, and they’re making trillions in the process! If this is the apocalypse, I say bring it on! [Cheers]

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Gloria is a razor-sharp comic drama about ambition, office warfare and hierarchies, where the only thing that matters is selling out to the highest bidder. This dark play about confronting death introduces us to an array of fascinating characters: Amy, a hotel-cleaner, Jim and Elaine, and Ben and Kate, whose lives are linked by a series of morbid revelations. Written by the up-and-coming writer of Posh, Breathing Corpses is both a literary and a theatrical delight. The scene opens with a hotel room and a corpse. The Burton Taylor Studio's intimate stage allows Amy to come into the room and apologise for disturbing the audience before it becomes clear she has discovered yet another body. She proceeds to talk to the body of Jim for some time, interspersing humour (“not surprised you didn’t touch the shortbread”), realism (“why wouldn’t you do this at the Ritz instead of a dump like this”) and poignancy (“do you miss the sky?”). The goings on will have you gripping your arm-rest trying to figure out where this is going and where it went. The playing space of the Coal Mine Theatre is and the audience is right there, almost in the middle of the action. The design team (Steve Lucas with his set and lighting and Ming Wong with the costumes) do wonders in creating the world of the play with economy. verifyErrors }}{{ message }}{{ /verifyErrors }}{{ There are five scenes in the play and through subtle, intricate writing some of the characters discover bodies and are haunted by it; some become the bodies themselves and perhaps in one case might be responsible for a body or two. The stories seem separate, but they are not. The beauty of Breathing Corpses is trying to solve the various mysteries as to who is under the covers and dead and who is not. The limelight is not where Wade wants to be – she uses actors to occupy that particular space – but at the recent Critics’ Circle Award ceremony she was forced to hold the attention of an audience as she collected her award for Most Promising Playwright. “I was really nervous on the day,” Wade admits, “because I’m not an enormous fan of speaking.” The ‘in public’ aspect of this particular sentence is hastily added as an after-thought.

Breathing Corpses is not a play about the living coping with death. It is hardly about the living but rather, as the title suggests, the half-dead: the characters had a close encounter with a cadaver, and their minds are dropsical with thoughts of death. Do they cope? Most people do, but not they. They collapse with singular ease under the weight, wreaking more death on the way. Why do they fail with such gusto? It is not explained — the play is not concerned with naturalistic minutiae. There is barely any character development. There are no motives. The portraits do not swell. The circular plot – the cunning of it – promises an antiseptic game, not a brooding tragedy, more card castle than gothic cathedral. Cleverness, at least the kind the audience would detect too readily, does not sit well with drama so intellectually, again, the play is a vacuum. No deep thoughts here. At no point does Laura Wade, the author, commit herself to ideas or convictions. She fights shy of didacticism. Faced with death, she seems to tell us, there is nothing to say. It is ‘surreal’, as one character puts it. Abby Clarke’s set is full of cardboard boxes, in heaps on the floor and hanging like cocoons from the ceiling. They, apparently symbols for death, exactly capture the ubiquity of death in Breathing Corpses. Finally, I felt that a significant improvement would be to cut the last scene. The first production to do without this remarkably shallow ending would be one step closer to triumph. Or, even better, Applewhite might wish to bring the cast together again for a different play – some Tennessee Williams, perhaps. His current production abounds in hints of true greatness which might have been achieved in a more favourable setting, one replete with danger, dynamism, and tears. I am interested in the way advances in medicine and palliative care mean more people now have the opportunity to plan their own deaths, and also plan for those who are left behind," says Wade. "What does that do to the grieving process? Grief needs to be occupied, and organising the funeral was one way of doing that. As Myra's husband says at one point, 'The funeral isn't for you, it's for us.' But if you know someone is going to die, what do you do with the time that is left? You can't just all sit around being sad, missing them before they are actually dead and buried." Wade is also true to her fellow young writers, preferring to take in some new writing of an evening rather than something that’s been about for a bit. Shakespeare is “quite long” she says. “I like to have some time left to go to the pub and discuss the play. I already know Shakespeare’s brilliant!” How would that very short conversation about the Bard go Miss Wade? “Masterpiece, wasn’t it? Pint?” In Henrik Ibsen’s three-act drama about a widowed mother and the return of her prodigal son. In a monologue towards the end of act one, Helene Alving, forty-five, is revealing all the horrible things her husband did to her to the minister, Pastor Manders. When Pastor Manders suggests that by having ‘wayward ideas’ and denying her duties Helene had brought upon herself her dysfunctional relationship with her son, she decides that it is time to reveal the truth: the drinking, violence, and boastful infidelity of her husband created an environment so toxic for her son that she had no choice but to do what she did. The piece contains interjections by Manders that would have to be edited out, but with very few changes this would make a great monologue for a performer who is confident at playing with status, class and emotional vulnerability.We return to Amy’s storyline, in a cyclical ending, which, without giving too much away, provides a rather beautiful if somewhat worrying finale. The mixture of lighter scenes and lines with rather brutal violence creates an interesting juxtaposition throughout the production. Where my body stops and the air around it starts has felt a little like this long continuous line of a battleground for about my whole life, I think.

The scene changes to Jim’s story and how he discovered a body in one of his units. The quote from the play’s advert: “When a man has lost all happiness, he’s not alive. Call him a breathing corpse ”is certainly bleak, and the character it most applies to is Jim. The unfolding story isn’t, however, so full of despair that it is depressing; more, it reminds us of human frailty and how easily happiness, or what passes for it, can be destroyed through a single moment.

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Verdict: Breathing Corpses is a unique experience for an audience member and the whole team must be applauded for their collaboration on this dark, multi-faceted, exciting production. Last year was probably one of the finest in the life of young playwright Laura Wade; she achieved something many more experienced playwrights rarely do by having two new plays running simultaneously in London, Breathing Corpses at the Royal Court and Colder Than Here at Soho. This was all topped off by a Critics’ Circle Award and a Laurence Olivier Award nomination. Matthew Amer caught up with one of theatre’s hottest properties just days before the Laurence Olivier Award ceremony.

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