Writers: Nick Walker and Tabitha Mortiboy
Director: Nicholas Pitt
Seeds, robbed of a theatrical platform during Covid, was successfully developed by Nicholas Pitt and Johanna Taylor of No Stone theatre company into a exhilarating eight-episode podcast drama commended by us at The Reviews Hub, the Sunday Times and the Guardian. Now redeveloped for stage, how does it stand up?
The essential story remains the same. During the protracted Seige of Leningrad, two scientists, Irina (Katy Stephens) and Dimitri (Graeme Rose) work with undimmed commitment at the Institute of Plant Industry. Their task is to continue preserving seeds of staple grain crops from around the world. Their colleague, Leonid (Ray Sesay) is mysteriously unwell, although he will reappear later, and they don’t know the whereabouts of their director. They are joined by a new arrival, Zasha (Hannah Hutch), not a scientist but a violinist.
Simultaneously another character, simply called The Patient (Fanta Barrie) awakens in a hospital with no knowledge of her identity or where she is. All she can do is articulate what she can observe in the present moment – ‘These are my fingers. This is the sound my feet make on the floor’. She manages to escape from the hospital and begins her journey in the wintry streets of Leningrad.
So much of what works in the play, including these rhythmic, often rhyming incantations of the Patient, is conveyed through sound rather than visual effects. The podcast episodes create a sense of urgency by the shifts in narrative viewpoint set against the unsettling sound design. At ninety minutes without an interval this new stage production is a bigger ask of the audience. The characters are all there on stage, so urgency and mystery too easily drain away. We are faced with the mundane reality of the scientists returning day after day to their not-very-clearly-defined work. Rather than get caught up in their inner dramas, we are more likely to ask literal questions. What are they actually doing every day? How exactly are they receiving their rations? The podcast drama works because we willingly suspend disbelief, accepting there is a poetic truth that is at stake.
The sound design by Jon Ouin is another illustration of this. The podcast creates pulses of fear with sounds of driving rain, a raging fire, the occasional explosion. What the listener engages imaginatively, readily supplying further potential horrors: is the Patient in fact emerging into a post-apocalyptic world, for instance? When rats attack the Institute, the terror is overwhelming. The stage production cannot harness this imaginative engagement so readily. For a start, the rats are understandably reduced to a bit of non-threatening scratching. But although the sound design is powerful (if a little unbalanced – the quieter-voiced actors struggle to be heard at times), it now tends to feel feels bleakly monotonous, as rain continues to fall throughout, rather than redolent with fresh terrors.
The Patient’s gradual discovery of her story works less well on stage too where she is forever drifting ghostlike around characters who can’t see her. Our expectations of having the connection between her and the scientists to become clear is constantly frustrated. Again this works much better in the podcast drama where two different time periods can co-exist more effectively.
The gradual descent of the scientists into starvation is tragic, but not inherently dramatic. Again, the podcast can suggest something heroic in the characters’ determination which cannot be easily conveyed on stage.
Runs until 4 November 2022