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Press Play -Popelei Theatre

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writers: babirye bukilwa, Eimear O’Neill, Katie Arnstein, Maria Askew  and Julia Correa

Director: Popelei

A group of works commissioned by award-winning duo Popelei (Tamsin Hurtado Clarke and Scarlett Plouviez), Press Play gives its audience the opportunity of exploring moments of connection.

Working with the current restrictions, Press Play smartly bridges that connection by asking us to engage with audio and visual material. Four miniature plays – first person narratives – are given their own set of stage directions, but they’re for the audience to follow. Mirrors requires us to listen to the piece whilst gazing at our own reflection. Half Acre asks us to find a secluded spot on a park bench. This is not just to serve the playwright, but to enable a sense of inclusion. As the plays progress, this idea becomes central to the entire project.

This notion of agency ties in with the plays’ discussion of empowerment. Written by Eimear O’Neill, Feast draws a story of you – a collective you – helping to prepare a meal for friends. This gathering joyfully extends beyond the Rule of Six, with no limitations on who gets an invite. Every woman who has supported you, guided you away from a bad decision. The friend who’s always had your back. Greenaway’s cheerful Irish narrator is warm and homely – but with enough no-nonsense to keep you focused. This meal is not only to celebrate, but also to look at the impact of positive memory. Guided back into our everyday world and the kitchen table, we are encouraged to consider our perspective changed.

In curating these plays, Popelei have brought together stories that challenge our everyday experience. In a great opening piece, Mirrors (written by babirye bukilwa) layers familiarity with the unexpected. Drawing on guided meditation, Popelei build voice after voice, sound after sound, into the play. The listener is asked to consider their face, their body. This is to be done without self-critique – we are engaging with emotions, not surfaces. The smoothness of the meditation voice melts away into a voice that is visceral and highly present. We go beyond the looking glass, into breaking down our physicality, bit by bit. The narrator pushes us to see our face, at this moment, and the next, as transitory. It will never look exactly the same as it does right now. Popelei pushes us to find the freedom in this realisation. This joining of audio and listener participation is more than a gimmick. It makes the audience member feel connected in a way that not only echoes the real-life theatre experience, but also makes us feel we are, once again, linking up with the outside world.

It is this vastness that is explored in You Give Me Butterflies (written and performed by Maria Askew and Julia Correa). Filmed from their lockdown locations, Askew and Correa – over Zoom – discuss the concept of rituals. They capture elements of the film-making process: there is footage of a bee hive, a beach at sunset. They discuss their ability to keep working, to feel productive, even in extraordinary circumstances. Correa and Askew liken it to being drenched in gooey, sticky honey. The bees may be busy, but the struggle to emerge with something tangible feels like an unyielding process.

Askew and Correa get us to think about this opportunity given to the world to stop and think. Is it isolating, defeating? Or does it promise something more? One question at the end of Askew and Correa’s film is left to resonate: what happens when all this ends?

Watched separately or together, Press Play leaves us asking questions, not least about how we have adapted to change during this period of isolation. To reach out for connections where you can find them, or as in Half Acre, be surprised when they find you. The perspective on change shifts across the series of plays, from isolation, bewilderment and empowerment. Do we resist, or lean in?

Available here

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