Alan Fielden with JAMS: Marathon – The Barbican, London

Creators: Alan Fielden, Sophie Grodin, Malachy Orozco, Jemima Yong

Director: Alan Fielden

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

The race that we call the marathon is inspired by the tale of Pheidippides, who is said to have run from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks’ victory over the Persians.

JAMS, a four-person experimental theatre company, are putting on a play about a similar journey, although their herald is bringing a message not of victory, but of defeat: “we have lost the war, the enemy is coming.” It is a play which they vaguely remember having put on before, but the details are sketchy. Each performer has vague memories of some aspect of the forgotten piece, and tries to persuade the others of some elements – from the presence of a table so large it had to be descended from a hole in the roof, to a recording of a videotaped execution played out with a Nerf gun in place of a pistol.

In reality, of course, there was no such performance. The quirky, hesitant recollections are part of the artifice that saw this work win the 2018 Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award. From the exploration of repetitive sounds – the cast’s slow clapping echoing the sound of marching soldiers, of rain, then of snow (maybe not the silent fall of flakes, but the crunch they make underfoot) – to the use of pyrotechnics, smoke machines and the metallic foil capes used by marathon runners and rescued refugees, JAMS as a company is resolutely unconcerned with linear storytelling.

That same lack of concern, and detachment from the realities of war, is present in some of the vignettes that the company presents in those elements which are closest to the herald’s story. As Jemima Yong assumes the character’s role and encounters some villlagers en route, she ends up in a bizarre speed dating evening, where nobody is willing to acknowledge the battle campaigns that surround their town (the noises of shelling, they insist, are celebratory fireworks).

That the king the herald serves is a corrupt tyrant, that defeat may be a form of release, are hinted at: but Marathon is not about that tale. It is not even about the herald’s journey. If it is about anything, it is about the metaphorical journey that actors take to unlock the truth buried within stories.

That journey is not quite as interesting to observe as it is to participate in, however. While Marathon offers amusements and the occasional, intriguing tidbit of something more emotionally satisfying, it is less effective at conveying a deeper truth.

Continues until September 29 2018 | Image: Camilla Greenwell

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