Architecting, an ambitious exploration of emotional and social repair, is stimulating and exciting and messy and frustrating in equal measure.
Devised by the TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) in association with the National Theatre of Scotland the piece began life as a BAC Scratch commission in 2006 before a much expanded version drew plaudits last year at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 2008 and at New York’s Performance Space 122 earlier this year.
As the audience enters the theatre a woman is already on stage crooning in country-and-western fashion as her companion strums a guitar on his guitar. A bottle of JD sits on a nearby table and, behind her, the walls are papered in Tyvek wrap; a couple of CCTV monitors flicker from the corners of the versatile wooden box that forms the centre of Nick Vaughan’s set (and, by turns, represents a New Orleans bar, a service station, and a pony cart).
Perhaps as a result of its multi-stranded structure, it takes a little while for the production to warm up. In the first few minutes numerous themes and ideas are introduced, from a thermodynamic view of history to the architectural merit of Chartres Cathedral; only after a while do the various threads (to an extent) separate themselves.
Architect Carrie Campbell arrives in a post-Katrina New Orleans to oversee the completion of a new property project – a TND (Traditional New Development) called Phoenix Meadows – that had been designed and originated by her late father. The locals, those that remain, are not altogether happy with this re-imagining of a traditional American community, this re-packaging of their city into neat, polished boxes.
This present day scenario – the battered yet proud American south – is paralleled with another period of reconstruction, the one that occurred after the American Civil War, and this is viewed through the particular prism of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Mitchell herself is a presence on stage (played by Lana Lesley as an intelligent woman slightly unsettled by the freight train success of her novel) as is her iconic heroine Scarlett O’Hara.
Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind is further tied to the present day narrative by a storyline involving a boorish Hollywood producer who is trying to get a new production of the book off the ground; this time with a black director and with various trims, tweaks and wholesale re-writes having been made to bring it more into keeping with modern sensibilities, especially in regard to race. The producer suggests turning one of the O’Hara servants into Martin Luther King’s grandfather and making him an early campaigner for civil rights, but the director, having started to read the novel for the first time (his parents wouldn’t allow it in the house) becomes fascinated with the book and its depiction of the American South.
Rachel Chavkin’s multimedia production is hugely ambitious in scope and execution: characters both real and imagined happily interact, while music and video, dance and movement, all form a part of the collage. The performers all play numerous roles and gender and race provide no barrier to their character-hopping; at various points throughout the production every person on stage dons a hoop skirt and corset to play Scarlett O’Hara and the most famous exchange of dialogue between Scarlett and Rhett is delivered by the two male cast members.
There are numerous moments of humour that stop it from being too overwhelming, but at near on three hours, though it rarely lags, it does sometimes feel like the work of an artist who can’t help but keep adding and refining until some original clarity is lost. This is a complex but intriguing piece, a thing of many bricks, and it’s not always as coherent as it could be but in the last few minutes, as Carrie (compellingly played by Libby King, the emotional core of the show) delivers her final plea, everything else falls away and the audience are left listening to the cathedral-echo of her voice alone.
Reviewed for musicOMH.