By now established as a spearhead for new and alternative theatre in Cardiff, The Other Room at Porter’s has chosen violence as a theme for reflection for its Autumn season of 2019. The first of the series of three play is this American Nightmare, a new work by Matthew Bulgo set in a quasi-dystopian America in what appears to be, at least at face value, a point not too far in the future. We don’t know much of this world – it isn’t really fleshed out, and for the purposes of the play, it doesn’t need to be – but it is clear that conflict still runs rampant, the situation in the Middle East is far from settled, inequalities dictated by capitalism have worsened even more, and the protections that exist for the weakest in society have failed. All of this is learnt through the runtime of the play, which juxtaposes what are substantially two vignettes, in which we watch two characters each interact in radically different settings – underscoring the societal imbalance that this works aims to comment on.
The juxtaposition between the two threads of the play is reinforced in a very effective way by the stage setting. Designer Delyth Evans and lighting designer Katy Morison are both to be complimented for their ability to create an essential but impactful environment that manages to create an easy link between the two parts of the story, whose placement side-by-side would otherwise be at risk of being excessively didascalic. The main issue with American Nightmare – not a damning one, but one that must continuously be kept in check by cast and creatives – lies in its being an almost formulaic story, heavily reliant on familiar tropes; there is little surprise in its reveals, and the direction the events are taking is easily predictable. Much rests on the cast’s ability to be engaging and credible in carrying the story, and all four actors on stage (plus Richard Harrington as The Program, whose video segments are a remarkable incarnation of the idea itself of an oppressive system) do an excellent job of this. All performances are impactful, heartfelt, and create an immediate connection with the audience, giving the feeling that we are faced with real humans. Particular credit goes to Ruth Ollman as Clara, cleverly manoeuvring the audience’s reactions from fun to discomfort; both Gwydion Rhys as Ellwood and Lowri Izzard as Daria delve with ease into the complexity of their characters, and their excellent chemistry with each other gives further credibility to their interactions. Christopher Gordon as Greg is easily the most empathetic character on stage, making the ending of the play even more uncomfortable.
The plot’s reliance on tropes is both a vulnerability and a strength, in a way, because it is clear that what American Nightmare aims to be is a character study, or rather a study of multiple characters and the ways that a hostile society directs them and forces them to interact with each other. In this the writing is hugely successful: all the characters in the play come across as complex, convincing human beings, with moral grey areas and engaging conflicts, able to touch and disturb, move and engage their audience. The play also easily succeeds in capturing the mood of the war economy, and war ideology, that is so pervasive in contemporary American society (and not only there). In this sense, the tropes becomes tools, used to facilitate the things the narration truly cares for: the characters, their conflicts both inner and with each other, their arcs and their development. Matthew Bulgo has most certainly grown as a playwright, and here his writing comes across easy and convincing, sharp, snappy, and able to capture a variety of moods, transitioning with ease from one to the other. Only the ending feels like it drags slightly, but other than that, the pacing of the play flows without hiccups.
American Nightmare is not a perfect work, but one has a feeling that a work on this subject would perhaps be less powerful if it was perfect. Some might find the formulaicity of its plot frustrating; many will be drawn in by the stark humanity of its characters. The moral questions it poses are relevant and engaging, and while some of them could have been explored in more depth, the ability to pose questions without necessarily expecting to find an answer is something this work must be praised for. What is sure is that the Other Room keeps confirming itself as a home for thought-provoking theatre and performance in Cardiff.
Until September 29