Clarissa!, Notional Theatre, Chapter Arts Centre

December 14, 2018 by

Inspired by Picasso’s Guernica as well as a number of other reflections concerning the nature of art, artists, those that inspire them, the history of cinema, age and memory, love, family, and war, this latest play by Terry Victor is a one-woman-show starring Angharad Berrow in the title role. Her Clarissa is without doubt a remarkable woman: cinema celebrity, wartime entertainer, torn by the loss of a lover who went to fought in Spain and never came back, presented both as an old woman living vicariously through her own memories and as a young, successful woman seen through the filter of those very same memories. Incorporating a reflection about cinema, silent and with sound, black-and-white and technicolour, the play becomes almost by necessity a multimedia enterprise. The videography is curated by Chritsian Britten and blends very effectively with the narration; in fact, almost all of the most effective moments, and those who carry the greatest impact, are the ones where video blends in with Berrow’s performance. The out-of-scene of old Clarissa’s carer, whose identity is only revealed towards the end, provides an interlocutor at whom the reminiscences of the main character can be aimed, giving the audience the sensation that they are looking in on something private: a private moment for a woman who presents herself as a character who prides herself on making sense only through her being a public person.

Yet the lasting impression after the end of Clarissa! is one of frustration. The play gives the strong impression of having truly too much on its plate. It has a great number of fascinating ideas, all of which would deserve a serious, in-depth exploration. We rarely see art seen through the eyes of the muse rather than that of the artist: old Clarissa’s reflection on show she is, in a sense, the personification of art is, for instance, one of the most interesting points of the play. The presentation of the fight against fascism in Spain, the way in which Picasso’s Guernica came to channel it, represent it and symbolise it, and the choice to present it through the eyes of a character that is not necessarily sympathetic to it – and becomes in turn at least in part unsympathetic to her audience – is clever and brave. The reflection around cinema and what is true and fake when seen through its filter, and how the contamination of true and fake seeps into Clarissa’s own life, is a disturbing and interesting suggestion. Yet none of these is explored deeply enough to be truly compelling. It feels like the play keeps dropping interesting ideas only to leave the audience to develop them on its own, and the result is somewhat jarring. We want to know more about what happened surrounding the war; we want to know more about Clarissa’s perception of her old age; we want to know more about how the writing conceives of art, and sex, and inspiration. But all these themes are conflicting with each other, and none of them has room to be explored with sufficient attention to truly shine; and so the many interesting, potentially engaging suggestions often feel like lost occasions, at least in part.

Angharad Berrow has a brilliant stage presence, and tackles with grace and intensity a character that is written – this is a brave and successful choice of the playwright – in a way that could easily come across in some points as unpleasant and with plenty of rough edges. Perhaps surprisingly, her presence is strongest when it is silent: the moments in which it is only her body language playing in tune to the videography are among the most powerful and best conceived, and the sequence evoking Guernica through make-up is truly remarkable. Her performance manages in general to keep the audience engaged and flesh out a character that gives a sense of having greater depth than she shows, and her transition from the rendition of old Clarissa to her younger self is truly impressive.

All in all Clarissa! is to be praised on its courage and the variety of unusual suggestions it taps into, but it also comes across as somewhat of a lost opportunity to make those suggestions, and the developments that may have come from them, truly shine.

Chapter, Until December 15

This review has been kindly supported by the Wales Critics Fund.

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