Since the very inception of the genre, dystopia has mostly been used as a tool to comment on current social issue, and this is also very much the case with this The Story, which gives off the uneasy vibe of being set in a future not as far off as one would like to think. The setting of the story is left deliberately vague, but there is no doubt that this country is what Aristotle would have termed an ochlocracy – a dictatorship of the mob where even the basic conventions of human living can be easily dismissed if ‘the people’ so wish. It is not difficult to find in this an echo of the many concerning populisms that we take note of every day in the press, domestic and foreign alike, especially when the script frequently drops references to refugees trying to cross a desert to the border, occupied territories, and suchlike. Anyone (including myself) who, as an immigrant, has had to undergo a tense border check or fear the faceless process of immigration controls in order to gain leave to remain will empathise with this work deeply from the get-go. It does certainly do a great job of capturing the feeling of becoming something faceless to be processed in the ever-crunching machine of a bureaucracy that can only deal with people by forgetting that they are people – because if it remembered, it could find no moral justification to keep doing some of the things that it does.
The Story is also a tale of abuse of power, of coerced confessions, and of what the system does to people, both those who end up trapped in it and those who are moulded by working within it. This it treats with a degree of ambiguity that is both welcome and problematic; the former because it keeps the audience on edge, trying to unravel what is going on and distinguish the (indistinguishable) truth from the many possible lies; the latter because, in the end, some things remain hanging, foggy and unresolved – a deliberately frustrating choice, perhaps. The other main issue faced by this production, and by far the larger one, is an occasional lack of confidence in itself. In more than one place, one or the other of the characters will bluntly state, for the sole benefit of the audience, something that there was no need to say explicitly, because it had already come across more than clearly from the action on stage. This takes some of the punch away from the narration itself, and there is a feeling that this production needs to believe somewhat more in its ability – which it possesses – to convey its underlying messages without spoonfeeding them to those watching. This is particularly important for a work like this, which clearly is invested in a socially relevant message; that message is better served by being shown without commentary, and moments, for instance, in which a distorted voice reminds us of ‘the will of the people’ with no particular context detract, not add, to it.
It is, nonetheless, an intense work, drawing its audience in quickly and keeping it deeply engaged almost to the very end – the tension somewhat boils down in the very last scenes, but overall the work is coherent and strong in its emotional charge. This is also to the credit of excellent performances from Siwan Morris, an emotional, easy-to-connect-with protagonist, and particularly Hannah McPake, whose performance as a variety of characters that are a variety of facets of the same person is a real tour de force and worth the price of the ticket on its own. These are complemented by filmed material with Luciana Trapman as the Storyteller, which gave the production a sort of Blade Runner-like vibe at its beginning, setting the tone very aptly for a story of near-contemporary dystopia.
There is some autobiographic element in the writing of Tess Berry-Hart, and it shows; the text channels the kind of raging frustration at dishumanising bureaucracy that can only be fully felt and understood by those who have first-hand experience with it. But for those who don’t, equally, this work is a stark insight into things we often choose not to look at, pulling no punches and showing a rather good example of how dystopian futures can speak to our present in the most relevant of ways.
Until October 27