Writer: Emily Head
Director: Guy Unsworth
Like Alfred Hitchcock and more recently Sam Mendes, the one-shot approach is hugely ambitious and technical filmmaking. Doing that live as the show goes out adds a level of complexity that director Guy Unsworth takes in his stride, along with a potential world record for the longest single shot, as Original Theatre stream Emily Head’s debut play The System performed at the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich.
A young partygoer finds herself in a police interview room following the violent death of her stepfather Paul. As a series of characters give their evidence, the unseen policeman puts pressure on these women to reveal what happened. But the partygoer has more than one secret to reveal.
Part whodunnit and part character study, The System is an extended police interview which spends the early section of the play slowly revealing the details of the crime and its victim before shifting its lens back onto the speakers, a collection of characters all played by Head in an impressive and gripping story that becomes quite the technical feat for both actor and director.
Referencing shows like Criminal, Head’s debut play, which runs for about 70-minutes, is a tight knit piece that slowly yields deeper insights and layers as the story unfolds. The single room setting and intense one-side duologues are carefully constructed to build tension, and Head deftly manages the shifts in perspective moving the audience towards moments of realisation that quietly reorder everything that has come before.
Written originally as a traditional play, in staging the show for the first time Unsworth and his single cameraman have not only embraced the possibilities of hybrid theatre but have also actively and quite extraordinarily sought to expand them. Filmed in a cage, the camera moves within and outside the structure, sometimes acting as the performer’s interlocutor, directly looking at her or ‘standing up’ to intimidate her, and sometimes moving around her to shift the point of view from interrogator to observer.
It is a very exciting experience. Putting the camera directly into the action both as a character and the reporter of events creates a proximity and feeling of claustrophobia that would be difficult to replicate with a live audience physically removed from the action. The complex choreography of the camerawork creates such a fascinating synthesis with the episodic but cohesive live performance that this hybrid form has really pushed the boundaries.
Head’s performance is equally impressive and with seconds between character changes she convincingly changes accents, body language and personality to suggest around ten entirely different people, some fully formed individuals, others momentary fragments, all with a role to play in teasing out the two-sides of this story. Delivering a multi-character perspective and the entire script in this challenging format results in quite the solo performance.
There are a couple of speeches that last a little too long and some of the play’s outcomes are possible to guess ahead of time, but The System is everything that this hybrid form needs to be now that live theatre has resumed. Refusing to return to traditionally detached approaches to filming, this new work available on demand via Original Theatre from 8 September is worth staying home for.
Reviewed on 27 August. It will be available on demand from 8 September – 5 December 2021