REVIEW: Marsha – A Girl Who Does Bad Things, Arcola Theatre ✭✭✭

Marsha Grimeborn Opera

Marsha – A Girl Who Does Bad Things
Arcola Studios 2
3 Stars

As we arrive for this latest installment in the Grimeborn Festival we are issued with a mask bearing the imprint of a crudely drawn girl’s face and asked to wear it during the performance, and also to say ‘Hello to Marsha’ if she approaches us. Inside the theatre studio a number of actors are already scattered in seats wearing different masks, and the back wall is plastered with identical naïve portraits of the same little girl. The actor depicting her, back turned to us, is busy with crayons colouring them in. Are we in a straight-forward depiction of childhood, a girl’s version of Adrian Mole, or something very different from either?

The lights go down, we don our masks and Marsha (Tilly Gaunt) unrolls an artificial lawn. She introduces herself in a rural (Devon?) accent and what follows for the first half hour or so is a sequence of apparent narrative encounters in an idealized – even cartoon – village setting – first with Mrs Hoare (Victoria Gray), the local shop-keeper, then with a grumpy farmer, Mr MadDonald (Jessica Gillingwater), next with a mother, Susan (Kerri-Lynne Dietz), who does not want Tilly to get too close to the infant in her pram, and finally with Susan, her husband Jonny (Sarah Baillie) and Mrs Hoare as the former prepare to leave town for a vacation placing their child’s in Mrs Hoare’s care. Throughout much of the action a unicorn – or at least an actor (Rachel Baynton) in a white suit wearing a very benign-looking unicorn head – sits placidly at one side of the stage, as if keeping watch over Tilly’ safety.

Yet all is not what it seems in this deliberately banal and naïve bucolic idyll. A variety of distancing effects are present from the start. Only Marsha speaks – all her interlocutors sing in a form of heightened recitative that shades at time into arioso without ever developing into full melodic invention. A background soundtrack provides a variety of suitable noises as accompaniment to each episode, and a series of visual projections, in the same faux-naif style as the backdrop, provide a helpful literal statement of the actions that are in play through speech and vocalization. Finally the masks provide a reversal of the patterns of Greek theatre – instead of informing us of the nature of the characters depicted, they provide a confronting image to Marsha of a world turned entirely into her own image.

Cracks appear in this all too perfect world. Mr MadDonald is certainly not the cheery archetype Mr MacDonald that we know from the world of nursery rhyme, the unicorn may or may not be dead, Susan fears that Tilly has an obsessive interest in her infant, and Mrs Hoare may have caused children to disappear. Gradually our confidence is sapped in who and what to believe. Where is the reliable narrator to be found? Does everyone in the play (and by implication in life) simply hide behind the kind of masks that we ourselves are wearing?

The tone suddenly darkens markedly as we enter the final twenty minutes of the piece. In a blackout the other characters suddenly shift gear and reveal their fears of Marsha as a malign figure not an embodiment of guileless innocence. When the lights reemerge Marsha is physically not as she was before, and for the rest of the show we are invited to re-think all that we have seen hitherto. Was the first half a piece of projection or fantasy or scrambled memory? Is Marsha at liberty or in confinement as a result of a crime? Are any of the story markers we need to locate ourselves in a narrative what they appeared to be? And if not, is everything we know up for question, without any final resolution? What ‘message’ or content are we to take away from the show as a whole?

These are deep waters in which to wade, and just as Marsha recounts an episode in which she is swimming peacefully in a lake before the weather and the fish around her turn ugly, so too the audience finds itself in a state of confusion at the end. We applauded a bravura central performance without knowing quite what else we were applauding. Indeed the ‘feedback’ form with which we were sent away implied that this is still very much ‘work in progress’ that has yet to take final form, and which possibly needs more time in the workshop before exposure to an audience.

There is no doubt though that this hour-long show got us all thinking hard about issues that matter in contemporary opera, both technical and philosophical. First of all there is matter of whether this is an opera at all, and therefore what opera now means. The characters who sing to Marsha sound rather as if they have escaped from Britten’s Peter Grimes or Turn of the Screw. The hieratic, melismatic unaccompanied settings hint at an undertow of creepiness and unspecified vice behind an up-front benign rural idyll, but we are talking here much more of an underscore than a score, a heightening of mood as in film music, rather than the inevitable, necessary move from words to music which strikes me as essential in any definition of opera, as much as it is vital in any form of musical theatre. At present we are still talking about a ‘story with music’.

Next there is the issue of meaning. Director Martin Constantine and writer Alan Harris present this evening as a meditation on the meaning of beauty and innocence with the suggestion that we all too easily slip into prejudice towards those whom society conventionally defines as ugly or guilty; whereas beauty and truth can be found in many unexpected places even – and sometimes just as much – in the scrambled perspectives of the mentally ill or physically impaired. This is important and challenging counter-intuitive work – in fact just the sort of territory that contemporary opera should be exploring. But it is not clear to me that Marsha in its current form is sufficiently three-dimensional to take us far down this road of (self)-discovery. The distancing effects, clever and stimulating as they are, leave the final product too two-dimensional, literally a game of masks. In order to think about these difficult subjects we need to feel them too: that dynamic, transforming moment is the unique contribution of theatre and the justification for bringing all the art forms together in collaboration in opera – what Wagner called for in his ‘total work of art’. Ultimately we did not have enough complexity of character and detail to care enough about Marsha and her story as story rather than as concept.

So while this is a challenging night in the theatre in the best sense, it remains incomplete and unfinished and invites further revision and reflection on the part of the very able performers and highly thoughtful creators.

Find out more about the Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre

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