I find often that the best theatre is difficult to watch. It demands something of its audience. It refuses to allow them to settle into mindless comfort as they watch the play unfold. Instead, it challenges their penchant to sit complacently. It leaves their minds and hearts reeling long after they have left the theatre. That was my experience with Newfoundland’s White Rooster Theatre’s production of Meghan Greeley’s play Kingdom, produced at Neptune’s Scotiabank Studio Theatre as part of Eastern Front’s Stages Festival.
Nora was taken from her hiding place under the weeping willow in her yard by a man that she only knows as Sir, when she was a very young child. For years she has lived in captivity in a small room with no windows, depending on Sir to provide her with everything she needs to survive. It is a scenario that we hear about every so often in the media, children being kidnapped and abused for years, hidden away from their families, but it is a difficult subject for many of us to contend with. It is not the sort of existence for a child that we want to imagine or that we want to be faced with in a place as immersive as the theatre. Meghan Greeley’s play is a beautifully written, gripping glimpse into the twisted relationship between one kidnapped girl and her captor. I don’t want to reveal too much because so much of the play’s power is hinged on the audience never knowing what is going to happen next. We sit in a prolonged state of dread, expecting the absolute worst scenario our imagination is able to conjure up, which is likely exactly the way that Nora has lived for most of her life.
Nora, played by Greeley, and her mysterious young friend Scout, played by Sofia Banzhaf, are immediately likeable and their dynamic with one another, as they have adjusted to the rules of their captivity, is a perfect mixture of beautifully joyful and excruciatingly sad. Greeley and Banzhaf play children so authentically, giving them so much depth, so much subtly, so much heart, one immediately forgets that she is watching young adults pretending. The beautiful acting serves the beautiful writing and vice versa, and the result is a magical, gripping evening at the theatre. Andy Jones gives a chilling performance as Sir, a manipulative, yet unsettlingly soft spoken, older gentleman, who claims to want to protect Nora from the perils of the outside world. He is also grappling with his own issues, a choice that I loved, as it not only further humanized a person often written off entirely as being a monster (but never to the point that the atrocities he was committing were excused or justified), but it also set the stage perfectly for Nora to have to make her first big decision all by herself.
The allusions to A Doll’s House and To Kill a Mockingbird are certainly intentional. Flora Planchant’s set is designed in a way that looks a bit like a child’s clubhouse, with walls like a garden fence decorated with drawings, which connects to Ibsen’s theme that although everything may appear ideal on the outside, the private happenings inside may be very dysfunctional. Scout is both an adventurous heroine and the one who keeps perpetual watch. She is also the one more likely to want to explore beyond their bounds. Nora needs Scout to dream of escape and Scout needs Nora to stay alive.
Director Michael Waller makes excellent use of the tiny space, allowing the children to follow their inclinations toward perpetual movement, but making sure that Sir’s presence looms over them at all times. He makes excellent use of mounting tension, quiet intensity and mystery, leading the audience on a very unnerving but integral journey.
I was so engaged with Nora and Scout I found myself actively resisting the urge to get up and take them both by the hand and rescue them. It is difficult to sit passively and watch children being abused. We have been conditioned in the theatre to not get involved, but haven’t many of us been conditioned in this way in real life as well? Our compliance to maintaining society’s rules mirrors Nora’s relationship with Sir. That is, perhaps, the most unsettling aspect of the play.
If you are in Nova Scotia this week go see Kingdom. It is intelligent and astonishing, gripping and beautiful world-class theatre from Newfoundland.
White Rooster Theatre’s Kingdom plays as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Stages Festival at 7:00pm in Neptune’s Scotiabank Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street) through June 8th, 2013. Tickets are $20.00 or $30.00 for two. For more information or to book your tickets please visit this website, or visit the Box Office at 1593 Argyle Street or phone 902.429.7070.