The Unburied: The Saint of Darkness, much like its venue, needs a bit of effort to get into, but it’s worth it.
Said venue, the Rose Lipman Building, is a community and arts space (and former local authority library) located in those quiet streets south of De Beauvoir toward the Regent’s Canal, on the west side of Haggerston (though the Haggerston Overground station is nearby). It isn’t obvious where in the building the performance is taking place, as by 8pm the front entrance is distinctly shut and barred and even the side door is locked.
But circling the building locates the basement entrance and it is pleasing to get the warm welcome at the door and to see the hubbub of people waiting to go in. The performance venue itself is a large basement area with no stage, just pillars to break up the space.
This evening has an international feel to it, partly because Foreign Affairs, the theatre company, is interested in writing and plays from across the globe – very appropriate for Hackney.
Sure enough, the translation by Jozefina Komporaly of the Romanian poet András Visky’s 2016 play is done sympathetically and naturally, ensuring the language and poetry are beautiful to hear.
The play is a version of the story of Antigone, who wishes to carry out a respectable burial of her brother Polynices (hence The Unburied).
This Greek tale is then refracted though the life story of Mother Theresa and her religious experience and journey.
There are few props: four chairs, some pieces of cloth on the walls, and a desk. There are no seats, merely a concrete floor. The audience is invited to move about or sit. Lighting is low, but used with great effect to highlight parts of the space where the action is taking place.
The audience follows the actors almost somnambulantly as the play unfolds. Even functional wall lights work well in switching the focus and sequence of the play.
The story is interwoven with accounts of great suffering in the world and the protagonist’s desperate desire to address it. The ‘unburied’ theme works as a metaphor for the lack of obvious solutions to these spiritual and social/economic problems.
The quest gives a sense of restlessness, which is underlined by the continual movement of the actors to different parts of the room. There is a fluid and spontaneous feel to the event – even though the actors are completely on track and the lines are delivered clearly and precisely.
This protean impression is very effectively conveyed by Irene Panni, Isobel Pilkington, Megan Smith and Olivia Negrean, who are adorned in long grey dresses, like priestesses, that flow with the pacing about the room.
A large sheet is often grasped at each end and raised to the ceiling like a large wash and dry exercise. The acapella singing is lovely to hear as they do this: the congruence of song, movement, light and poetry creates a beautiful impression.
It is great the way the actors sometimes use their bodies as props, such as stroking the walls to give the sound and movement of the sea. There is a man, played sensitively by Will Timbers; but the four women are at the heart of this play.
The plot is hard to follow. There is a sense of progress from early family life to the later travels. There is a lot of religious discussion along the way. It is more Theresa than Antigone in the end, and maybe that focus could lose today’s more secular audience. The sense of despair of Antigone is perhaps more relevant for addressing current social problems.
Given the acute discomfort of sitting on the floor, the play is mercifully short. You dive into this half-lit world of despair and search for meaning amid flowing dresses and song. Then soon you come out blinking into the Haggerston streets once again, but with a valuable experience to think about and remember. Well done organisers and actors for pulling this off.
The Unburied: The Saint of Darkness is at the Rose Lipman Building, with the final two performances taking place Friday 24 and Saturday 25 November. Tickets are available here/ 23 November, 2017