So, instead of queuing up outside a theatre for fifteen minutes doing fuck all, you meet a man with a red umbrella who proceeds to check your name, take away your phone, demand that you get into the back of his blacked-out minibus and drive you to an anonymous barn in the back-end of nowhere? Bit clichéd isn’t it? Man with a red umbrella barking commands? Blacked-out windows and anonymous locations? Bit clichéd and arbitrary?

{{ quote Dedorograd is and was one of those things that, as students, we have a responsibility to celebrate: a joyfully ungainly triumph. }}

And then instead of easing into your numbered seat in the middle of an audience of several hundred anonymous heads all facing the same way, you sit down with just fifteen other people on a rotting stool in the corner of aforementioned barn, forced to make eye-contact with the strangers in the opposite corner, to lean on part of the set (a table littered with torn paper and animal bones) because of the sheer lack of space, to wrap yourself in a blanket because it’s so bloody cold? Well that’s been done before, hasn’t it. Hardly original. Company at Edinburgh this year did a play in a caravan – maximum audience for that was six. Six! Can you believe that?

And then instead of watching a large ensemble cast ‘reinterpret’ a play you’ve seen (or read or, at the very least, heard the story of) countless times before, you find yourself in the middle of a disconcertingly organic three-hander that veers queasily from post-apocalyptic science fiction to gothic horror, from poetry to sound-effect in a manner that can only really be described as cinematic? How typical of a piece of student drama, of student writing. How excessive, how hammy, how predictably inconsistent. Come back when you discover understatement.

The cynical theatre-goer is capable of recalibrating his dramatic preferences with astonishing speed. And so despite the fact that he criticises a play he sees one week for its lack of ambition, he’ll slander a play the next for being over-ambitious; he’ll find a thousand holes in a disastrous piece on a Monday, and then abuse with exactly the same voracity a magnificent work he goes to see the following Friday, because of a single flaw.

And sure enough, there will have been – no, I’ll correct that, there were – people who got off the Dedorograd minibus braying loudly about the fact that it ‘suffered’ from the ‘usual problems’ which apparently rather ‘got in the way’ – that it ‘could have done so much more with its own ideas’, that it was, ultimately, a ‘disappointment’, fundamentally ‘unsatisfying’. Those people are wankers.

Not because they were wrong, particularly – the narrative at the heart of the piece is indeed flawed, over-elaborate, a new-clothed emperor of sorts; there were indeed points at which one could only hope the script was being deliberately self-parodying; character did indeed have an occasional tendency to descend into cartoon. And neither because they were not entitled to their own opinions about a play that was never going to be everybody’s cup of tea (or, indeed, dystopian cybergoth blood). No, those people are wankers because as they walked away from a piece of theatre that represented the coming together of genuinely brave, genuinely self-effacing and genuinely successful creativity – that, I should add, sidestepped the traditional avenues so beloved by Warwickdrama (one word) almost completely – they were more interested in scoring cheap, pernickety points than they were in holding up their hands, in doffing their proverbial caps, and in saying well done.

Well done Dedorograd. Seriously. You did good.

And now for the cheap, pernickety points. Dedorograd tells the story of what happens when the lives of a misanthropic writer called Wolf with a fascination for ‘reading between the lines’ (interpret that how you will), and his anorexic-vampire-with-a-handgun of a housemate, are invaded by a Ukrainian handwriting-expert (Ursula Topski) who may or may not be said writer’s dead wife (the enigmatic ‘Elaine’, whose presence haunts proceedings as consistently as the cold). Hired by Wolf to decipher whether two letters he has in his possession are indeed written in said dead wife’s hand, the introduction of the seemingly efficient, together Topski places both the mental stability of, and the relationship between, Wolf and his young protégé under an extraordinary amount of strain, until their radio-obsessed, quasi-pagan, ritualistic, archaic, self-consciously poetic way of life collapses from the inside, leaving Topski to fend for herself against a marauding Secret Police made up of post-Chernobyl zombies (the rather unimaginatively named Gas Mask Men) intent on finding out ‘what happened in Dedorograd’. Or something.

In short, Pinter this isn’t. In fact, there’s a possibility I haven’t even got the above right, which is telling considering that I had a notebook with me to keep track of proceedings. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unfair to argue that Dedorograd needed to be saved from its own plot – if it had relied too much upon its audience either following, or indeed caring particularly about what was going on in front of them, then its effect would have been to confuse, unsettle and ultimately frustrate, so riddled is its narrative with loose-endings, red-herrings and unexplored ambiguity. There were definite shades of what I will refer to as Lostism throughout – that is, the sense that the writer chose to leave certain facets to his script unrealised because he ultimately didn’t know how to realise them, to finish them, to tie them up in a way that was both gratifying and eerie.

Indeed, Dedorograd’s biggest failure was the way it worked itself around crescendo points that relied upon an audience’s priorities being thoroughly caught up in story, and not just in the visually arresting, physically intimidating stuff that was going on around it. Culminating the entire piece with an emotionally-charged final speech from Topski was rather ill-judged, for example, because of the fact that it was coupled with the remarkable visual impact of the Gas Mask Men’s terrifying entrance – not one person I spoke to after the performance I saw could remember a single line of what was obviously supposed to represent the final piece of the narrative jigsaw. And, perhaps even more significantly, not one of them cared very much about that fact, either.

For the most part, however, Dedorograd played to its own strengths, and directors Matt Cooper and James McPhun deserve significant credit for taking Tim Franklin’s extraordinary script and turning it into something thrilling. All three characters were strong enough to ensure that referring to any one as protagonist would be spurious – and Cooper and McPhun allowed them to dominate accordingly. Matt Stokoe created a compelling physical shell for some incredibly challenging language, and dictated the entire space in a manner that was as attractive as it was frightening, while Bathsheba Piepe brought an uncanny, broken fragility – like a furbie running low on battery-life – to playing Wolf’s unlikely companion. Franklin is unquestionably at his best when playing with rather twisted dialogue, and the rapid-fire exchanges between Wolf and his ‘V-girl’ were unmatched highlights of the entire play.

Meanwhile, Jo Duncombe’s Topski was the perfect means for the play’s other key successful ingredient, its manipulation of atmosphere, to filter through. In her depiction of a normality that gradually breaks down into something both traumatised and alarming, she echoed the script’s undulations in mood and pitch wonderfully. As did Cooper and Mcphun’s direction of sound (bar some rather problematic Gas Mask Men ‘sex noises’), lighting and, above all, space. Indeed, I’ve seldom seen a piece of theatre that made the most – and, indeed, sense – of its theatrical space so impressively: holes in the carpet became surfaces for spell-casting, an entrance transformed itself into a brick wall, a corrugated iron rooftop and door were punched and peppered with stones at irregular intervals in a manner that literally caused a girl sitting next to the latter to cry out.

I could go on, but I won’t. The moral of the story is that Dedorograd is and was one of those things that, as students, we have a responsibility to celebrate, because whether we like it or not, it’s invariably the best we’re capable of coming up with: a joyfully ungainly triumph. And anybody who says otherwise is over-optimistically wrong. Believe me. The Gas Mask Men told me so.


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