Review: Riddley Walker
The idea of a play that gets back to basics and attempts to tell a story about time, the future becoming the present and the present the past. To use the almost primitive and formative method of narrative or story and create new sounding yet old sounding words must have been a powerful and creative source of inspiration for the director and artistic director of Red Kettle Theatre Company, Ben Hennessy. Then, to put it in a tent, a big top, like the old touring fit-up shows, must have fired his imagination, the same way that the basic storytelling techniques of a Punch And Judy show inspires people to act by telling a story.
Riddley Walker is such a book, a complicated novel, by Russell Hoban, written before 1980 and his children’s work has a cultish fascination. Readers are drawn to the notion of re-inventing language, like Joyce did and as you find in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Such works are strong journeys and the idea of going on a journey is another cornerstone of literature, story and theatre. Sometimes, the journey and the story is not easy to follow or understand and you have to keep up, learn the language and make sense of it. And that was the problem in a tent at Woodlands, In November.
Riddley Walker is an elemental work of darkness and light, life and death and ritual set three thousand years into the future where civilisation has regressed back to feral wild things, survival of the fittest, where even the children are feral and chant gross words. Walker has to take on his father’s task as talker and storyteller, like a Punch And Judy man, who tells his audience – where I come from it’s a long way from here, it’s about three thousand years in front of you, it ain’t happened yet. But the politician, Pry Mincer, Abel Goodparley, says – And when you feel my foot kicking you arse, that’ll just be the idea of it. Dogs and people hunt in packs and politicians and make promises and hold symposiums. For an instant you might think this is an allegory of a Government using story to lead people or lie to people and it is just words and the way you use words.
Journey in a tent
So, we are off on a journey in a tent where the roof heaves in the wind and stars are painted on the canvas and there are blankets on the seats as it might be a long night and it might get uncomfortable. Different characters appear with other stories and Punch And Judy is the first vicious story of all where a baby is fried on a pan – that’s not the way to do it. Aunty/Mother Nite threatens and initiates Riddley into sex and the story gets darker and more ritualised like a dance of death and destruction. The journey is now a confusion as to the possible and misleading sense of words – to reduce words down to syllables and start again like the elemental scientists burning the heart of the wood, to make charcoal to in turn make stronger fire and get salt petre from rocks and pig shit to mix Yellowboy stones to make explosions. Big bangs and atomic theory and this is now a very complicated story to carry. Riddley Walker tells the story that we are the seeds, the words, the elements that lead to destruction and going back to the start again if you have the energy.
The Saturday night I was there, the audience didn’t have the heart or stamina, for the journey. Some were not dressed for the journey and didn’t have the interest or the words to make sense of the story. There were a lot of empty seats after the interval and shortly before eleven o clock, Riddley says – Probably I won’t never know, it’s just me to think on it. There was no wild acclaim, no ovation, The Torann drummers drummed and the audience left the tent.
Cormac McDonagh was excellent as Riddley Walker, Joe Meagher was wonderful as Orfing. Will Irvine impressed as Lissener as did Paschal Scott as Abel Goodparley and Joseph M. Kelly as Granser. Jenni Ledwell was excellent as Aunty/Mother Nite.
Jamie Beamish and Torann made a powerful musical score. Conleth White lit it with feeling and understanding and the technical side was impressive and detailed.
Red Kettle Theatre Company have now gone back to elemental beginnings and the journey must start again because there are still stories to tell and challenges to overcome.
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