Writer: Tajinder Singh Hayer
Director: Alex Chisholm
Designer: Uzma Kazi
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Freedom Studios is nothing if not bold in the settings and style of its productions. The setting for North Country may be rather less integral to the subject matter than earlier site-specific triumphs at Drummonds Mill and Bradford Interchange, among others, but a disused city centre Marks and Spencer, re-christened The Wild Woods, is certainly appropriate to an apocalyptic tale of re-making the world after a plague has wiped out the majority of the population.
The programme includes Tajinder Singh Hayer’s script as a text in its own right, suggesting that it could have a life of its own away from the Wild Woods and in a very different style of production. Alex Chisholm’s treatment is bold (what else?) and makes the play and the setting part of the same event. Much of the specificity of the original text is lost, details of the story-telling are sometimes less than clear, but instead we gain an evocative and highly involving impressionist narrative. It would be interesting to see a more straightforward theatrical treatment, possibly equally effective, certainly very different.
The play starts with the arrival of the plague in Bradford: three teenagers, as yet unaware of its scale, are affected on the same day. Jason Alleyne (Philip Duguid-McQuillan) works on his father’s farm in Eldwick, cut off from the world beyond Shipley, multi-culturalism an unknown factor to them, then his father collapses on his way back from the village and dies a few days later. Harvinder Singh Sandhu (Kamal Kaan) is a liberal-minded middle-class son of two doctors, his 17th birthday celebrations interrupted by his parents’ emergency shift at the clinic before they, too, die. Nusrat Bibi (Natalie Davies) is eagerly awaiting presents on her sister’s return from Pakistan, but she doesn’t get much further than Heathrow.
Of course, we have the occasional violence and tribalism, but cleverly Singh Hayer looks more to how to rebuild a society from scratch. Alleyne, Harvinder and Nusrat don’t take to the hills as bandits or scramble a feral existence in the city, but instead, carve out leadership roles for themselves: Alleyne as master of the land, Nusrat as the Begum of an ever-growing Pakistani community, Harvinder as a trusted, if unqualified, doctor. Much of the play deals with the arrangements and compromises, the moral choices on race and law and order, that mark out their territory. In a short final scene, 42 years in the future, the characters deliver a retrospective elegy for the world they lost and the world they made.
The production style is remarkable, all three actors delivering sensitive and intelligent performances in the service of the greater concept. Screened off in a deliberately improvised manner from the rest of the store is an in-the-round acting area, surrounded by audience seating on comfy sofas, elegant chairs, stools and hay-bales. Chisholm takes her cue from the fact that the first quarter of the play is entirely individual narration by keeping each of the actors in his/her own small corner – the middle no doubt the desolation of Bradford – and, when power fails, each actor’s face is individually lit by torch or phone amid a swathe of darkness. As in post-plague Bradford, light returns, the characters meet in the centre, but the sense of the mysterious darkness outside remains.
Runs until 5 November 2016 | Image: Maria Spadafora