Moormaid, Arcola Theatre (Moe Bar-El and Sarah Alles) - courtesy of Anika Wagner_4
Photo credit: Anika Wagner

The Arcola plays host to the world première of Marion Botts’ new play, Moormaid, and was inspired by Botts’ discovery that two of her former classmates had gone to Syria to fight for IS and didn’t come back. This kind of occurrence seems to have almost been normalised, which shocked her, and with this play Botts sought to look at self-destruction and what might lie in wait from this generation’s disaffected youth.

It’s 11.11pm and art teacher Melissa has just got home. On top of getting soaked through in a thunderstorm, it’s clear she’s had a bad day as she downs several glasses of whisky in succession – and proceeds to fashion a makeshift noose from her favourite red scarf. However, she’s kept from this action first by a phone call, and then a knock at the door. Mehdi, a former student of hers, is there saying that he was sent to her by a dream. Is this fate, or has he got a dark secret of his own hiding away..?

Moormaid, Arcola Theatre (Ali Azhar) - courtesy of Anika Wagner
Photo credit: Anika Wagner

To start with, a bit of practical advice if you’re planning on seeing this play. There is a warning on the website, but you may not think to check the ‘guidance’ tab: Melissa has a weird obsession with walnuts, so spends a fair amount of time cracking and then eating them, so it may not be suitable for anyone with a severe nut allergy (though do check with theatre staff). Also, studio 2 now has seat allocations, but if it’s a relatively small audience then ushers may waive this and let you sit in any seat of the middle block – so it’s worth getting into the auditorium sooner rather than later in case you need to fight for a seat!

In terms of the play itself, it all feels rather confused and a tad pretentious. There is an emphasis on the legend of the androgynous, though I can’t really see how that properly ties in with the modern day issues being discussed in the play – I also don’t understand Melissa’s method of teaching painting, or why they need to paint each other. There are a few darkly humorous moments, such as the timing of the phone call and the ensuing casual conversation, but there were other sections where a good chunk of the audience was practically rolling in the aisles that I just didn’t find funny (in fact it often seemed to be deadly serious). Perhaps I misread the mood of these scenes, perhaps Botts couldn’t quite convey her thoughts as she intended. The play is definitely at its best and most believable when Mehdi is forced to confront his actions, both by Khan and Melissa.

There’s also no need for an interval in so short a play (~95 minutes); in terms of the narrative, it would have a greater effect to play straight through, and it would absolutely be practical as “resetting the space” only consists of removing a small projector and clearing up some of the nuts (the audience has to leave the theatre for them to do this…). This could easily be worked into the piece, with some extra movement direction, if necessary.

Moormaid, Arcola Theatre (Sarah Alles and Moe Bar-El) - courtesy of Anika Wagner
Photo credit: Anika Wagner

Sophia Simensky’s design of a front room, backed with a corridor and a couple of doors, is straightforward & effective – if a little rickety when the doors are forced shut. It does the job though, allowing the actors to come in & out of different places; the window in the middle is also great for additional background action, providing its own frame. Tim Boyd’s lighting design is deceptively simple – the colour scheme used to accompany the appearance of Khan is striking, and there are some clever effects when lamps are turned on & off (or candles are lit & blown out).

The cast of three commit to their roles admirably, with renowned German actress Sarah Alles (Melissa) proving to be especially adept at finding the dark & dry comedy in the text, and Moe Bar-El showing himself to be particularly impressive as Mehdi dissembles and charms his way back into his former teacher’s life. Ali Azhar as Khan is a breath of fresh air, providing some entertaining moments – and, for me, the most sympathetic of all three characters.

Moormaid, Arcola Theatre (Ali Azhar and Moe Bar-El) - courtesy of Anika Wagner
Photo credit: Anika Wagner

My verdict? A puzzling & pretentious play that will probably alienate as many people as it attracts – though visually striking, it struggles to tell an engaging story.

Rating: 2*

Moormaid runs at the Arcola Theatre until 19 May 2018. Tickets are available online or from the box office.

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