Reviews Performance Published 26 May 2012

Leper Colony

The Yard Theatre ⋄ 23rd May - 9th June 2012

Life on the margins.

Ella Parry-Davies

Situating itself on the precarious spit of marginality, Leper Colony comments on exclusion, isolation and insanity. It seems to do so, however, not with the raw materials of understanding, but from a mainland vantage point, struggling to dredge moments of lucidity from the mildewed canals of cliché and confusion.

The piece is a ninety minute, unscripted work, which seems largely improvised, but aims to present lives on the edges of society; the outcasts. The six actors roam around a playground of furniture and objects which provide most of the stimulus for their abstract, image- based interactions

Leper Colony has clearly been inspired by its location, rooting itself into this converted space surrounded by industrial factories and warehouses. Hackney Wick, that odd, lopsided ecosystem, a weed in concrete, is palpably on the brink of change. A long way from Trafalgar Square’s ticking countdown to the Games, the piece seems to have been devised to savour the last seconds of obscurity and chaos, before the media and security machines descend on East London.

Despite the hallucinatory juxtaposition of this moment in the East End’s history, the piece positions itself ambiguously against a background of shared concerns: “Here there is no such thing as the ninety nine percent.” There are moments in the production which gesture towards hierarchies  –  at one point one of the performers, Thomas Snowdon, repeatedly demands, “How much?” into a telephone receiver, circling its base obsessively while he sweeps furniture and objects ruthlessly out of his orbit. Fellow cast member Cristina Haraba’s bewildered question, “How do you feel?” is kind of like a  Gillian Wearing vox pop conducted with a child’s tape recorder, evoking the media chatter that purports profundity yet produces the most inane banalities. And as the characters sleep, a sickly sun is blasted onto the wall of the space, accompanied by stuttering white noise.

It opens with a composition of micro-scenes isolated by pools of light, in which the performers complete repetitive processes of ordering: Snowdon builds a wall of wooden bricks, Emilie Patry ties knot after knot in old string, Haraba plays chess. Antique children’s toys evoke a Freudian nursery – a relatively hackneyed allusion to the regression of the insane. The reference persists throughout, with the actors ransacking the chest of stage-madness – Pablo Meneu Barreira in violent outbursts, Marco Nanetti with semi-eroticized tactility. Although the demolition of the opening stage picture is initially thrilling, bringing Snowdon’s meticulous walls down injoyful clatter, the mess eventually becomes monotonous.

Leper Colony proceeds to scramble around with images that are too displaced to foster dialogue; it relies on metaphors of dislocation that are too generalised and threadbare to hit home. Its form sags and billows because there’s a lack of direction to guide the spontaneity of the performance: I wondered if the actors, who seemed to be mainly improvising, had been given too much with which to play. The stage is packed with furniture and objects, each of which holds the potential for poetic significance, but there’s too much here to be fruitful.

Instead they reach for the closest triggers to hand, and end up with repetitive, and often obvious gobbets of dramaturgy. At worst, this comes dangerously close to a fetishization of marginality: the isolated, unhinged lives the play seeks to represent become stage fodder, an artistic license to do away with anything recognisable. Director Vaughan Pilikian has clearly revelled in the liberty his premise offers, and the freedom and risk of the unscripted live performance is exciting. Its spontaneity means that changes will no doubt occur, and with tighter focus and greater fidelity to its concerns, Leper Colony’s moments of poignancy will no doubt become less few and far between.

Ella Parry-Davies

Ella is a research student working in interdisciplinary approaches to theatre and performance studies, funded by King's College London and the National University of Singapore, and also publishes regularly on illustration. She is currently co-convenor of Beirut: Bodies in Public, a conference held in association with Performance Philosophy, and of Research with Reach, a training initiative based at King's for thoughtful, provocative and engaging research outside of academia. She is from east London but has also lived and worked professionally as a set designer in France

Leper Colony Show Info

Directed by Vaughan Pilikian

Cast includes Pablo Meneu Barreira, Cristina Haraba, Marco Nanetti, Emilie Patry, Steven Rodgers, Thomas Snowdon

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 1 hr 30 mins (no interval)


Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.