Cruelty over love

18 November 2017

Review: Valentine by Kynan Hughes ◆
The Blue Room Theatre, 16 November ◆
Review by Suzanne Ingelbrecht ◆

When does the retelling of old stories become pointless? When are stock caricatures best left to the dustbin of history? It’s a conundrum that Kynan Hughes bravely tries to tackle in a quest to find new meaning for our contemporary society from scenarios in the stylised artform, commedia dell’arte.

The stories themselves are as old as human time. Desire, shame, violence, grief play out in the Blue Room’s main space in a melee of dance, mask play, puppetry and dialogue. The characters in Hughes’ Valentine are classic commedia dell’arte: Pierrot, Columbina, Brighella and artful Harlequin, the zanni trickster servant whose will to control the unfolding artifice is ultimately undermined when all his players desert him.

The best moments – as one would expect from a company of highly trained, professional dancers – come in the dance choreographies to Tristen Parr’s throbbing, pulsing score, although the movement work sometimes felt constrained, as if the dancers longed to bust out of their cramped theatre container but couldn’t. One of the most fascinating vignette moments was Pierrot becoming some sort of weird Conjoined Twin with four gyrating legs. That and the vision of Steve Wintercroft’s angular masks drifting through the space during the work’s moments of yearning and loss became a signature focus of the work for me.

Less satisfying were the moments of dialogue when the dancers tried to become actors. These were the moments when Hughes tackled the whole artifice of story by pulling his character players out of role to discuss what the point of this particular story was. It had its comic moments, particularly for those of us working in performing arts who got the gags relating to the parlous nature of the industry and its relationships. But it did not leave me with a sense that telling old scenarios has any point other than to show, yet again, that nothing really changes. Even if Columbina is no longer a helpless, subservient pawn of male desire by play end, thus ensuring a measure of female agency, Valentine ultimately reveals that human cruelty wins out over love every time: that there really is too little love in the world. It’s a hollow feeling I have too often these days when I leave the theatre.

Hughes and his company of Natalie Allen, David Mack and Rachel Arianne Ogle have worked hard on this multi-discipline experiment and deserve kudos for their work. In any progression, Valentine would benefit from a larger space to work within and more thought given to what the point of it all is. Perhaps rather than trying to suggest that finding contemporary meaning to old stories is the way to go, the joy might be in exploring the old stories for their own sake and playing up to the company’s notable strengths in dance and puppetry.

Valentine is playing at the Blue Room Theatre until December 2.

Pictured top is Natalie Allen in ‘Valentine’. Photo: Pixel Poetry.

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