Writer: Nina Atesh
Director: Alex McCarthy
Nina Atesh’s The Drought is – as its name might suggest – a play about absence. It’s an absence that is immediately both visible and audible on the intimate stage of The King’s Head Theatre, in the form of a minimalistic set, punctuated by the eerie sound of wind blowing through nothingness. It’s an absence that is immediately apparent in the vapid and deliberately shallow dialogue of the Captain and his Steward, who open the play. And it’s an absence that will echo throughout the play as a whole, as its characters find themselves faced with the terrifying prospect of nothingness, holding out hope of rescue, until that too, is slowly whittled down to nothing. Never has a title been more appropriate.
The premise of The Drought is beautifully simplistic: the ocean disappears during the maritime expedition of a Victorian British Navy Ship, and its remaining crew (a Captain and his Steward, Garson) must cling to the last vestiges of tradition and ritual in order to keep madness at bay. But of course, the play spends very little time dwelling on its unusual premise, instead sensibly using it as a springboard to explore the psychological state of its characters. Here, Atesh’s play and McCarthy’s direction makes the first of a series of clever decisions. The King’s Head is a small and intimate venue, and its actors are its best asset: by making the scenario merely a backdrop to a deeper exploration of human character, Atesh gives her actors the room they need to showcase their gradual descent into madness.
And, in keeping with the minimalism of the play, the storytelling is left to only three characters: The Captain (Andrew Callaghan), Garson the Steward (Jack Flammiger) and the Stranger (Caleb O’Brien). Each quickly comes to represent a distinct quality: The Captain is order, authority and ritual, Garson is structure and servitude, and the Stranger acts as a foil to them both, planting seeds of discord in their entrenched ways. All three are superb in their respective roles, showcasing a broad acting range, but particular mention must go to the Captain (Callaghan). Aesthetically, a perfect choice for a grizzled, sea worn sailor, his apt physical appearance is exceeded only by the physicality of his acting. With his eyes bulging out of his head, and his speech punctuated by episodes of licking and wetting his thirsty lips, he seamlessly conveys the increased desperation of a sailor running short on provisions and water. Flammiger and O’Brien are no less impressive as a sycophantic servant and his questioning conscience, respectively.
Each of the three actors shares a roughly equal proportion of stage time, but the second clever decision by Atesh and McCarthy is to ensure that rarely are all three on stage at the same time. Instead, she lets her characters face off against each other (one on one), without overcrowding the spotlight. In the absence of one character, the other two will discuss that character, only to guiltily curtail their conversation upon his re-entry. Thus, the audience is made to feel like reluctant confidantes to an intimate dialogue. We watch passively as The Stranger carefully dismantles the established conventions and traditions that the two remaining crewmembers have built for themselves to stave off their fears, and we watch with equal horror as the true nature of those crewmembers reveals itself. This is a classic story of ‘humans being more evil than the misfortunes which befall them’, but it plays out delicately and carefully, until any illusion of normality suddenly falls away in front of our eyes.
The best thing about The Drought is its simplicity: the premise is straightforward, it does not push the limitations of its setting, and even its staging is minimalistic – every prop has a purpose, and the lighting and sound is sparse yet effective. And yet, beneath this minimalism is a layered complexity. The play dips in and out of metatheatre by asking the audience whether its characters are themselves, keeping up an act, and whether we can genuinely trust them. It leaves us inquisitive and unsure: this is a play revelling in its own ambiguity. As the Stranger so aptly puts it, ‘your little bottle of sanity looks close to cracking’.
Runs until 24 September 2022