ALL IS WELL
mac, Birmingham, Friday 12th May, 2017
Vanessa Oakes’s play centres around four characters who lose their way in a forest. Not just any forest but the contaminated one at Chernobyl, site of the biggest nuclear accident (so far, that is). As is the custom, Aleks (Mark Carey) has returned to pay respects to his mother’s grave. He’s not the only one on a similar quest. People’s concern for tradition outweighs fear over the radiation that continues to poison the area, and will do so for thousands of years. Young couple Stefan (Jack Richardson) and Nina (Aimee Powell) separate, reunite, fall out (no pun intended) and reconcile. Meanwhile, old Anna (Janice McKenzie) gets on with her life in this forbidden forest, lamenting the loss of her home and defying the law of the land. There is some mystery about who she is – the ambiguity is intriguing: is she Aleks’s mother? Is she a ghost?
The presentation is simple, the location suggested by a rusty Russian sign, overgrown, a door frame standing alone. The characters narrate scene headings and provide descriptions of what is not staged, so we build in our imaginations the scale of the forest, the weather conditions and so on. Mark Evans directs with an assured hand, keeping things straightforward so that the ideas in the script are clearly transmitted. The result is a stark reminder of the terrible accident, its impact on the locals and the area, and also a reminder of the folly of nuclear power. Even after Chernobyl, people still want it – even though, the play points out, it is much more expensive than renewables.
The characters visit this toxic territory as though it’s a post-apocalyptic theme park. We learn that tourists flock to the region, attracted by the horror, the ‘ghost town’. How ghoulish! And how typical of the attitude the play decries, that of not looking to the future, of hankering for the past through the prism of nostalgia instead of protecting ourselves and the land.
Janice McKenzie’s Anna is both wise and foolish, worldly and blinkered. Aimee Powell’s Nina is passionate, tinged with fear, in her anti-nuclear stance, while Jack Richardson makes an emotional Stefan, albeit a bit of a twit. Mark Carey’s Aleks is a scientist, resigned to radiation in the world, as if there is no alternative to nuclear energy. The four meet each other in turn, throwing up in their conversations the questions Oakes wants us to think about. Is it really worth gambling the environment? Silly question but some people (corporations, governments) think it is.
It’s not all bleak. There is humour here, reminding us the people of Chernobyl are humans like us and not just statistics. And there is a charming blackbird puppet (designed and made by Joff Chafer) expressively operated by Jack Richardson. Life goes on, the blackbird signifies, and while it does, all must be well. Mustn’t it?
A thought-provoking hour that amuses and horrifies, but we engage with the issues and ideas more than with the characters.