There seem to be endless call-outs for playwrights to respond to Coronavirus. And yet for many of us, the idea of watching a play about what we’re living through makes our toes curl. Thankfully Papatango’s new monologue series, launched the day after many UK theatres closed, is “Isolated but Open” – the actors are locked down, but the subject matter is free to roam. There is everything from the witty and uplifting to the poetic and thought-provoking in these twelve short films, curated by Papatango to showcase the country’s ‘freshest, most vital voices’.
Lizzy Watts bursts onto the screen, laughing at the preposterousness of serving éclairs at her mother’s funeral in Martha Watson Allpress’s Wild Swim. Despite her humour we see a woman withdrawn and in denial. Her grief slowly bubbles to the surface as she attempts to reconnect by taking up her mother’s wild swimming pastime. The description becomes vivid and poetic; we can almost feel the mushroom paté-textured mud and ice cold water. We listen to her piercing dive into the cold lake, but watch as she walks up to the “Lake closed due to Covid-19” sign and dejectedly settles for an ice-filled bath instead – the clever disparity between text and image heartbreakingly reminds us of all we’re missing out on.
Susan Wokoma plays a tower block resident in the premiere of Rachel De-Lahay’s Balcony Bonding. Behind her jokes we get a very real sense of loneliness. She stumbles her way through a livestream, dressed in her Home Alone t-shirt, interrupting her own monologue by dropping her phone, opening her blind and reiterating that she is a proud independent woman. By the end we’re itching to find out what her grand idea is that she promises will connect the local community together – the hilarious big reveal is the last thing you’d expect.
Rosie Day plays a fake-smiling vlogger in William Drew’s Hungry Like, which captures the slightly ominous world of YouTube fame. After thanking us for our comments and likes, she apologises that viewer favourite “George” doesn’t feel well enough to appear on camera. We first assume she’s speaking of a camera-shy boyfriend, but as the character’s veneer unravels and unidentified growling noises emerge from the door it becomes clear the truth is far darker.
The most engaging of the shorts, Angus Harrison’s Guts, follows a talkative Yorkshire woman who works at a supermarket fish counter. She explains the ropes to a new employee and navigates tales of customers rich and poor, young and old, drunk and sober. Mixed in with her good-natured humour and matter-of-fact instructions, there are moments of terror. With wide eyes, Bryony Miller recounts cutting off a wedge of her own thumb and apologising to the customer for bleeding, reminding us of all the country’s overlooked workers.
“Hi there, future me.” Talented performer Gloria Obianyo chats to herself in 10 years’ time in Benedict Lombe’s Rise from the Wreckage. She expresses her hope that she’s still “hella fine” then explains last night’s strange dream: that 90% of humans were wiped out by a natural disaster, and the remaining babies were stored in cryosleep – the only surviving adults bell hooks and Malala. Though Benedict Lombe’s script is sometimes a little on the nose, Obianyo’s pleading look at the camera as she proclaims “I hope we remember this moment as the moment the world changed” and whispers “We need to treat each other better” is hard to resist.
“Solastalgia” is a form of distress caused by environmental change. In renowned playwright Anders Lustgarten’s work, performer Danny Kirrane casts us back to a time when trees covered the length and breadth of the country, like a grand cathedral roof. The luxuriant language transports us into that “haunting cathedral silence”, and we’re reminded that to the trees, the “frantic scrabblings” of humans moving to and fro are indistinguishable from the lives of beetles and ants. If anything, we could have done away with the actor’s close-up entirely and simply listened to his voice over footage of the forest.
With subtle gestures, each character invites us into their most private moments, where they stumble and talk in circles and mess up and try again. We recognise the awkwardness of self-filming in a world where we have all spent too long watching our own faces on Zoom.
There’s no need to worry about being bombarded by heavy messages about the current state of affairs – the pieces don’t preach but simply explore what it means to be one single human in the world.
Read our review of Isolated But Open: Voices From The Shutdown ( 7-12) here