An ambitious leap forward | Collapse

Adrian Buckle's sophomore play-writing effort Collapse enjoys solid performances and inspired staging, but it's cut down by the writer-producer's theatrical obsessions 

Armageddon begins at home:  Jeffrey Kieviet as Robbie, Whitney Ellis at Greta and Ashley Allen as Stella (back)
Armageddon begins at home: Jeffrey Kieviet as Robbie, Whitney Ellis at Greta and Ashley Allen as Stella (back)

The fact that Unifaun Theatre are a dogged reality of the local theatrical scene is something of a blessing in our microscopic cultural ecology; if nothing else, the brainchild of founder and producer Adrian Buckle provides a sobering and sometimes shocking respite from the safe “good nights out” which are offered up by the semi-professional theatre companies that otherwise dominate our stages.

Buckle’s decision to plunge into play-writing himself is also a welcome development – it gives us a much-needed breath of homegrown English-language scripts to experience and, hopefully, also export. His debut last year – Unintended, directed by Stephen Oliver and, like his latest, staged at Spazju Kreattiv – showed potential. Buckle has certainly internalised some good habits from the voluminous and varied plays he’s helped to stage as producer, and his handle on both banter and rising tension lays solid foundation.

It’s a shame, then, that his fanboy-like obsession with what we can broadly call the “in-yer-face” theatre genre leads him into some complacent artistic alleyways, resulting in work that, at its lowest ebbs, resembles fan-fiction of a sub-genre that is resistent to the very idea of such idolatrous representation.

‘Collapse’ – performed over February 17, 18, 23, 24, 25 and March 2-4 – was helmed by frequent Unifaun collaborator Dave Barton, who brought over an international cast of US-based performers to breathe life into Buckle’s second produced script. A script which, as Buckle’s introductory note in the play’s programme states, was written at the height of the ‘Stitching’ controversy which dominated cultural discourse throughout 2009 and 2010, eventually helping lead the overhaul of Malta’s censorship laws.

Steeped as these very laws were in now-archaic notions of propriety and religious apostasy, it comes as no surprise that Buckle’s play is animated by an engine of anger against such repressive socio-political mechanisms. Set in what resembles a post-apocalyptic world which has now become stock-in-trade for the genres Buckle likes to play with, Collapse is also laced with religious imagery and swims in Christian archetypes; most powerfully embodied by the Madonna-like figure played with a caustic dose of sarcasm by Ashley Allen. The fact that Allen is also charged with playing a ‘femme fatale’ figure – she enters into the lives of her naive friend and colleague Greta (Whitney Ellis) and her child-like supposed lover Robbie (Jeffrey Kieviet) to take shelter from the “wolves” outside, causing no small amount of disruption – is an inspired twist on the knife on Buckle’s part.

One wonders if such a move would have been deemed “acceptable” some seven or so years ago, but beyond such polemical speculations, it still stands as a powerful indictment against the notion that a woman can only be either a Madonna or a Whore – a notion kickstarted into being by the patriarchal status quo and given quite a bit of help from monotheistic religions the world over. It becomes all the more of a topical thematic strand in a play that is, effectively, about a female character’s agency in a world that’s always out to smother it. Ellis’s Greta is initially presented as passive, even submissive to a fault, but the twists that underlie Buckle’s complex narrative soon reveal this to be a mere foil, with the outwardly benevolent brother figure of Aaron (Bryan Jennings) in turn being shown up as a staunch member of that same patriarchal order we mentioned earlier.

While the play’s dystopian setting and ‘shocking’ twists will by now feel like mere cliches to those with even a passing familiarity with Buckle’s preferred theatrical modes, the cast were routinely excellent in their roles, and the staging and set design – the latter overseen by Unifaun regular Romualdo Moretti – creates the right “dark fairytale” atmosphere that Buckle and Barton were clearly going for. This disturbing blend is embodied most potently in Kieviet’s Robbie – on whose blunt naivete the hammer of the world, inevitably, falls down hard. But while Ellis does a fine job of playing put-upon but “realistic”, and while Jennings’s bumbling and physically lumbering performance is a perfect fit for a character embodying remorseless abuse passed off as “help”, it’s Allen’s performance that really sticks in the mind.

Madonna, but not as we know her: Kieviet and Allen
Madonna, but not as we know her: Kieviet and Allen

Stella’s sadistic streak is revealed to be a result of her engagement with the merciless world “outside” – as contrasted with Greta’s insistence on barricading herself, and Robbie, away from it – and she proves herself most useful when the occasion calls for it, both in terms of vindictive action and carnal pleasure. Allen is cheeky, seductive and powerful in equal measure, and the performer’s confident grasp of the character elevates each of the scenes she’s in with an electric energy.

And speaking of energy, the play moves at a steady – if somewhat fragmented – clip. The use of music is effective throughout – though none of the dance sequences here quite match the commitment to Muse’s oeuvre in Buckle’s debut – and lends a necessary salve from the horror when it does appear. It helps to remind us that these characters are human – at least for the duration of the bulk of the narrative – and extends an olive branch of relateable emotion to the audience. However, the many and abrupt scene changes simply felt like hesitation; the desire to jump from one thing to another so quickly a result of nervousness, not dynamism, on the playwright’s part.

Buckle’s script ultimately falters towards the end, as he sadly defaults to the “it was all in your head” trope to explain away the many layers of this otherwise complex tangle of fears and neuroses. This is where his recourse to staid narrative devices undercuts the subversive edge of his project, and one hopes that future productions will lead to more original and rigorously thought-out storytelling.

However, Collapse remains a worthwhile experience, and an apt continuation of Buckle’s career as a playwright as well as producer of some of Malta’s most noteworthy and envelope-pushing productions. Blending the fairy tale idiom with a post-apocalyptic narrative inflected by the ‘in-yer-face’ theatrical tradition, it’s certainly an ambitious leap forward that does suffer a few scrapes and bruises on landing.

But as the play’s programme also reveals in its back pages in which Unifaun advertises future productions, it certainly seems as though Buckle is far from ready to give up just yet.