Writer: Afsaneh Gray
Director: Pia Furtado
Reviewer: Deborah Klayman
What happens when the way we self-identify is not included in the multiple choice checklist? Set in a possible near-future, Afsaneh Gray’s Octopus examines the nature of identity and poses the question: is the way we define ourselves as important as the way that others see us?
In the world of the play, new and more stringent laws are being applied to those citizens not of entirely English lineage. Scotland has left the union, so what defines one as British has become synonymous with Englishness, and Gray’s tightly scripted text challenges perceptions and preconceptions about how this intangible quality is characterised.
Sharp, direct and unapologetic, Octopus places three diametrically opposed characters inside a fishbowl as each waits to be interviewed to determine their “Britishness”. Sara (Alexandra D’Sa), Sarah (Rebecca Oldfield) and Scheherazade (Dilek Rose) each has their own idea of what makes them British, and as the pressure mounts, they increasingly find themselves both at odds with, and in support of, each other in the face of a common enemy.
Accountant Sara believes that her hard work, sizeable salary and valuable contribution will make the interview a mere formality. D’Sa presents a beautifully constructed character: tightly wound, self-restrictive and somewhat smug. The intensity and intention D’Sa brings to the role is compelling, and Sara’s development throughout the play is a joy to watch. Struggling artist Scheherazade stands in both stark and hilarious contrast, with Rose’s vastly expressive facial expressions drawing as many laughs as the quick-fire lines. Her innocent quality compliments the often bizarre stories she has to tell and allows the other characters to build a believable rapport with her and, by association, each other. Oldfield’s Sarah is delightfully irritating, eliciting many laughs and groans of recognition from the audience as a charity worker who needs everyone to know how “right on” and P.C. she is – despite her private prejudices.
The threads that really weave this piece together are the importance of music and the presence of the unsympathetic interviewer. Played by all three actresses and always, meaningfully, represented by a headscarf and royal family mug, the character provides a counterpoint, increasing the conflict while representing a system that cares nought for the individual. The music used throughout offers a window into the inner lives of the women, and a source of connection to each other. Music as a form of protest adds layers and musicals, pop, punk and indie all have their place, with each reference cleverly used to highlight aspects of “Britishness” and a shared consciousness.
There is a huge amount of humour in this play, yet the subjects it touches on are looming and imminent. Utilising naturalistic dialogue, abstract vignettes and post-punk musical sequences, Octopus is a hard beast to pin down, sometimes feeling as if issues are not given enough time or weight. The punk staple of the on-stage microphone is a nice concept;however. it is underused, and sections on it largely feel underpowered and, rather than adding impetus, rather saps momentum. Conversely, the vignettes and scene changes employ a lot of movement and pace but would benefit from stronger lighting to delineate the sequences.
With strong performances, pointed political commentary and dynamic staging, this Edinburgh transfer is one not to be missed. Funny, powerful and incisive, Octopus is both an enjoyable play and a stark warning of days yet to come.
Runs until 15 October 2016 | Image:Henry Zuleika