Review: B, Royal Court ‘Lost in Translation, Maybe’

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I was really looking forward to this, the Royal Court debut of Chilean playwright, Guillermo Calderón, but something seems to have been maybe lost in translation as I found it very hard to grasp the emotional tone of this short play centred around two young women, seemingly inexperienced in violent protest, who employ the services of an experienced bombmaker as part of their plans for an incendiary piece of direct action.

At times, this is a comedy, much in the spirit of the mighty film, Four Lions; in other moments, this is a heartfelt serious drama that explores what would motivate someone to take up arms against the state. And those two do not sit comfortably side by side. I’m all for the need for comedy to lighten up any drama, but the comedy here is too absurdist. If it wanted to be a black comedy, fine. But you can’t really mix that tone with tragedy and expect it to gel.

Something needed to give.

Marcela (Aimée-Ffion Edwards) and Alejandra (Danusia Samal) are waiting at a neutral domestic address for their meeting with José Miguel (Paul Kaye), the bombmaker. Not that the pair are entirely convinced of their strategy – they’re all for the attention using a bomb would give their planned attack, only they don’t want to hurt anyone in the process. And their best laid plans are already going awry as their appearance at the house has interested the lonely next-door neighbour, Carmen (Sarah Niles), who seems thrilled to have some company and keeps popping around to say hello.

And that has thrown the girls’ cover story right out the window – they were meant to be using the idea of a birthday party to explain any odd comings and goings to the house but Marcela’s mind has already scrambled and she, instead, has spun a yarn about a dead boyfriend – and it’s proving a difficult tale to keep realistic.

It’s already unravelling and it’s already pretty funny. The lines are short and smart and it’s light-hearted stuff as we watch Marcela and Alejandra tie themselves in knots in their attempts to keep their cover story believable.

The tone starts to shift when José Miguel arrives with the bomb – the “B” of the play’s title, and the word that cannot explicitly be said for fear of being overheard. Only the frivolousness and silliness of the comedy doesn’t wholly leave and we’re left with an odd blend of satire and confessional monologues as each character begins to open up about what has brought them here to this house today – their experiences, their loss, their anger, and their journey.

There was much that I enjoyed about the production. There are some cracking performances and the dialogue is delivered whippet-quick but, like I said, it’s hard to feel fully immersed in a play when that play isn’t entirely sure of its own footing or its central themes. Is this an examination of loss and sacrifice? The power and influence of group mentality and comradeship? Maybe it’s a philosophical discussion on violence itself. Or, the dead ends we can get ourselves into when we don’t think through the consequences of our actions. I’m still a little unsure.

Had this play committed to being either a satire or a drama with a bit of comedy thrown in, it probably would have worked. And there is something entertaining and intriguing about the language and the characters as they unravel in unexpected directions. I just feel more would have been gained by not trying to be everything all at once.

Royal Court Theatre, London, to October 21, 2017
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Helen Murray.

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