Writer: Zinnie Harris
Director: Caroline Byrne
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The notion that there are cycles to human life is not a new one; the seven ages of man, four seasons, the phases of the moon, are all ways to measure and mark the passing of time. In Zinnie Harris’ 2011 play The Wheel, revived by final year students at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, it is the repetitive cycle of history that comes under examination as a makeshift family take a journey through the endless destruction of war.
Beatriz is preparing for her sister Rosa’s wedding when a group of soldiers decide to billet themselves at their farm, before accusing a local farmer of selling grain to the enemy. He is banished, leaving behind his six-year old daughter. Beatriz tries to catch him but finds herself walking across Europe looking for the missing man. As war rages, a burnt soldier and baby join her new family and together they endure the worst effects of the conflict but as time passes the girl is not all she seems.
Caroline Byrne’s production at the Milton Court Theatre, supported by the Barbican, is a confident approach to a very unusual play. Set originally in northern Spain, the preparatory opening scene has tones of Lorca, while the ten chapters that follow will hit references as diverse as absurdism, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and The Wizard of Oz as four unlikely companions find strength together.
But Harris’ play is fairly unrelenting in its depiction of catastrophe and Byrne builds the apocalyptic feel with a range of staging techniques, including a nod to Ivo van Hove and Complicité in the use of an onstage video camera to project onto the rear wall in lieu of scenery. This works really effectively in Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s stage design that takes the audience primarily through the conflicts of the twentieth century as the gas of the First World War becomes the Holocaust and later nuclear explosion and Vietnam – all different experiences yet somehow the same consistent fight.
The magical element of Harris’ play is the one thing that never quite works and while The Girl becomes a potential symbol of disguised evil which is first revered and then feared, it sits at odds with the rest of the play, unclear what purpose it serves in a story that already has much to say about the destructive bent of humanity, and it is a problem that Byrne’s production never solves or fully integrates.
Anya Murphy leads as talented cast as Beatriz, a calm and relatable young woman who suddenly finds herself in an unexpected position caring for a group of dependents who rely on her entirely. Already a strong personality as she stands up to the encroaching soldiers, Murphy shows how Beatriz’s determination is ground-down by the war and the seemingly endless journey, building credibly to her dilemma in the final minutes of the play and holding her own as the only speaking character in a lot of her scenes.
Among the supporting cast Chirag Benedict Lobo is very good as the man that Beatriz meets several times on the road, while Phia Saban and Shaka Kalokoh have the difficult role of conveying the entire characters of Girl and Boy without speaking, with Saban in particular suggesting the ambiguity of her role as innocent or demon.
This Guildhall production doesn’t fully resolve the contrasting themes of magic and devastation, and the energy sags in the final section, but at a neat 100 minutes The Wheel considers the inevitable tragedy of human destruction as life, history and war are reduced to simple concepts such as ‘the enemy is the enemy’ where simple truths are twisted and blown out of proportion until everything is changed. It all sounds scarily familiar.
Runs Until 26 October 2019 | Image: Contributed