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Part of the Arcola Creative Engagement Winter Festival 2014, Adini Söyle (Say Your Name) rides the crest of a wave of contemporary plays dealing with protest against the state of the nation: from the aptly named Rhys Ifans monologue Protest Song to the searing treatise on Chinese capitalism, The World of Extreme Happiness, both recently seen at the National Theatre’s experimental venue, the Shed. In the case of Say Your Name, the nation in question is Turkey, and the play is fittingly performed in Turkish with English subtitles projected onto a wall at the back of the stage.
We are presented with a series of short sketches and speeches, ranging from the touchingly personal to a treatment of the bizarre realm of public decision-making, and incorporating representatives from all sections of society – although the focus remains for the most part on the middle class natives of Istanbul. The 13-strong cast switch characters at a rate of knots, with scenes bookended by traffic noise and lighting changes. So while this is a good way for the audience to get an overview of the contemporary state of affairs in Turkey, we never really get to know any of the people addressing us, and I would perhaps have preferred a stronger sense of narrative to be woven through the action. As it is, Say Your Name often comes across as less than the sum of its parts. Which is not to say there aren’t moments of eye-opening revelation, just that the team make us wade through a few superfluous scenes to get there.
I found the structure a little uneven – my highlights were clustered towards the end of the piece, and I felt that the actors overplayed the opening segment, in which a group of city planners outlined their increasingly ridiculous vision for Istanbul’s future. This included an innovative staging mechanism – a table with slots in the top, into which could be placed bits of cardboard and plastic representing the skyscrapers and bridges that the planners enthused about constructing, and out of which all traces of greenery were carelessly thrown. This section, while containing a strong message in its conclusion, was overly long and a rather alienating introduction to the show, consisting primarily of statistics and people talking extremely quickly. When the pace slowed, and our attention shifted to those affected by the industrialisation and capitalisation of Istanbul, the play had more room to breathe and to better explore its ideas.
It also represented a movement into the comfort zone of the performers, who displayed effective physicality as they told their characters’ stories. Although a number of the scenes reiterated the same points about the loss of individual identity and connection to the natural world, some of these presented an intriguing perspective on everyday life under a government seen to be operating in an oppressive, self-interested manner. But the show tended to discuss rather than depict the issues at hand, and the actors’ evident talent for physical theatre was rarely utilised to its full potential. A rather clumsily choreographed sequence in which two protesters were menaced by approaching police officers was one of few on-stage representations of the atmosphere in Istanbul, and while one character briefly mentioned that the police were people too it might have been worthwhile to examine this statement further, with a monologue from one of the police officers. More effective was a musical interlude half way through the play which was abruptly brought to a halt by violence: this, too, seemed a little fleeting and half-hearted, however.
I found I wanted to be told less and shown more, and was glad when the cast were finally given the opportunity to physically depict the relationship between the authorities and the general public – in a sequence which involved seated people speaking up about how they felt and the issues that mattered to them, but being silenced by a swift hand across their mouths by the sinister figures standing behind them. These officials then proceeded to change the subject, waxing lyrical about subjects ranging from dating to the best way to cook a chicken, until the members of the public piped up again and had to be silenced once more. This was a perfect mixture of showing and telling, and got the point across far more effectively than many of the earlier scenes.
It was also pleasing to see that things weren’t entirely hopeless, with a rousing song and dance number rounding off the play – and managing to fit in some encouraging lyrics about women’s rights and the struggle for freedom. And the show obviously struck a chord with the Turkish portion of the audience, who gave the actors a standing ovation. All in all, this was an admirable undertaking, let down somewhat by the execution and by the Arcola’s Studio 2 space – only the central part of the audience could really see the projected English translation, and the wooden bench was one of the least comfortable seats I’ve ever experienced at the theatre. A bit of script rewriting, and a change of venue, would work wonders for this important and occasionally powerful play.
Adini Söyle (Say Your Name) continues at the Arcola Theatre until Saturday January 11. See the theatre website for more information.