revew: Yusra Warsama – Of All The Beautiful Things In The World
Of All The Beautiful Things In The World/
by Yusra Warsama/
dir Yusra Warsama/
design Ellie Light/
lighting & sound design Mark Distin-Webster/
composers: Tom Leah AKA Werkha; Clive Hunte; Rob Hiley/
24 Mar – 06 Apr 2023//
Only an Image
In the text of his 1936 play The House of Bernarda Alba, Federico García Lorca instructs the reader, ‘The poet declares that these three acts are intended to serve as a photographic record.’ Like photographs, plays are not representative of reality, but are an impression left by it, an assemblage of shapes, a trace of where we can see light fall. A photograph is a balance between light and darkness: too much light and you’ll blow the image out, too little and you won’t make out anything at all. Lorca’s play is documentary because it is interested in preserving a set of social relationships; it is a record of the power which a mother might hold over her daughters and her household, a power which becomes a curling, ingrown claw, wounding that which it means to protect.
Yusra Warsama’s Moss Side adaptation of the Lorca is spun from distinctly Mancunian textures. My own image of Moss Side is from when I lived there in 2019: redbrick terraces which stretch out in every direction, the alleys between them still cobbled. It’s an urban geography which retains the shape it had when it was built. Living there felt to me like living within a clear, historically defined relationship to the city and my neighbours; that which we held most in common was the overbearing city, pulling us into itself. On the horizon, depending which direction you look, are moors or skyscrapers. Warsama’s play, though, isn’t transplanted to the streets. Early on, Udgoon, head of the household, locks down the home and forbids any of her daughters from leaving.
Her daughters are, notionally, adults. But their imprisonment flattens them. Udgoon’s hired cleaner, Mrs F A (who comes and goes as she pleases) looked after the sisters when they were children, and that relationship continues to overshadow their adulthood. To F A and Udgoon, they are still children, flattened into a version of themselves which is only a partial reflection of who they are. The play begins with a long, slow and silent tableau; the family and their cleaner move about the set, inhabiting it, interacting, showing us the physical shape of their lives together. When we are audience to a play about family, we are party only to an image. The ways they inhabit and interact may be facts about their life, but people are not facts, our lives are not information, images, photographs, profiles, our lives are the felt and messy things inside the information and the pattern of behaviour. Treating her daughters like children will not turn them back into girls, it will only injure them and her.
We can talk about theatre as though it is a photograph. A play’s power is in its ability to highlight for the people in its audience the differences they have between them. Because they are sharing the space the audience are forced to think about their neighbours. They bring into the room what is familiar to them and the play must negotiate the balance of light and dark, between what is familiar to its audience and what is new. In Of All The Beautiful Things In The World, every formal decision is an act of portraiture. The story is told through a combination of straight scenes of dialogue between characters, and expressionist bursts of poetry, dance, movement, lip syncing. Lorca’s original plot is skeletonised, because the work done in these bursts between scenes teaches us in its own way. When the characters onstage ventriloquise Kirk Franklin’s Revolution, we are not only being conveyed to the next story beat – we’re being given a moment of raucous connection: something common burns inside the women onstage.
Where we might ordinarily expect a transition between moments of story, a frame to contextualise the previous scene and prepare us for the next, it’s story all the way down. In this theatrical photograph, there is no separation between frame and image.
The action is spurred from social anxiety. The girls’ father, Udgoon’s husband, is dead. Udgoon claims that the women at the tailors have been talking – their family’s mourning has not been great enough, has not been performed sufficiently in the eyes of the community. It doesn’t matter if this is true or not because she herself is in control of reality. She locks down the home, for the purposes of appearance; they must be seen to be mourning appropriately, they must create the correct image, they must flatten themselves so that they are read appropriately. The streets of Moss Side have eyes and whether they are watching or not, Udgoon feels scrutinised and so draws down the shutters.
The play is what we take it for. A piece of theatre is there for us to read it. It doesn’t really live until we leave the space, until we speak it into existence by chatting over a coffee or a pint or a cigarette. There, we discover that the play we saw was not the play our neighbour saw, that what we felt was our own tiny world which grew around us, and now we are back outside our world dissipates and dissolves into the other worlds which grew in that audience, and their worlds into ours. The experience of art is not flat and it is not singular – it wobbles about inside us, changes us, and changes the world when we express it.
Udgoon oppresses her daughters out of fear. As a result, Suhela is terrified enough by her own pregnancy that she kills herself rather than be found out. Udgoon has made the world a prison. To treat her daughters like children and pawns is dangerous, and likewise it is dangerous to treat Udgoon as a flat photograph, too. Facing away from the audience, pronouncing into a microphone so her voice comes from all sides, Udgoon uncoils the reel of trauma that has drawn her to this moment, this location, this person, tense and tight and terrified of losing her control over herself and others. Every character battles their own dehumanisation. Their tragedy is that their separate struggles for agency contradict each other, and come at each other’s expense.
Warsama’s Of All The Beautiful Things In The World is a play which does not reject that flatness of photography, but takes it and peels it open. When people appear flat to us, does it matter if they have internal lives? If we treat people as if they are flat, does it matter that they have internal lives? What we do is who we are. When Udgoon shapes reality around herself, she changes who her daughters are. What we do creates the world around us, and that world shapes the people we share it with. Every character has their own internal life – but those internal lives are trapped. Only we the audience are privy to the lives inside of them and so those internal lives have no impact on the world or their circumstances within it. What we receive is severed from that which is inside, only an image.
image edited from: