Exams are over, the sun is (sometimes) out, and this week Hild Bede Theatre is treating us to something new, exciting, and just that little bit different. Written and directed by Rachel Nwokoro, Keep it Casual takes a definite and dramatic step away from those more traditional plays littering the Durham drama scene over the last three terms, with its utterly contemporary concerns and its evocation of lives not so very different to our own. Nwokoro describes her creation as a short modern play, exploring “the walls that people put up to stop themselves moving forward, and the lengths those that love them will go in order to break them down.” Showing for one night only on Thursday 9th June, there will be two successive performances of the play, taking place in The Undercroft of College of St Hild and St Bede.
Nwokoro explains her courageous decision to write something of her own. “I wanted to put on a play after exams,” she states, “but there was nothing I really wanted to do, and over Easter I had all these ideas in my head which I needed to get down somehow. I saw a play by my acting coach, Daniel Hoffmann-Gill, which inspired me to write a play with those ideas. It was like a burst of creativity; I had to get down these thoughts, which are now some of the main themes in the play.” The play, only about half an hour in length, does not seem to fit into some of the more conventional expectations of a play. Operating on no fixed story line, it seeks to document various glimpses into the separate lives of a group of people. All of the actors are onstage throughout, and the action drifts seamlessly from one group to another, inviting an audience to work to keep track of the issues and complex emotions propounded. The play’s producer Sophia Harrop describes the play as “quite interactive – the actual theatre space we’ve managed to create is really immersive. There are no actual seats, rather the audience just walks around observing the action, as it rolls on continuously.” This brave and dynamic new theatricality allows an audience to really feel as though they are part of the action, and, crucially, as though they had just interrupted somebody else’s life. Nwokoro describes her debt to Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You in the play’s use of space. “It’s necessary for the audience to feel like they shouldn’t be there, hearing all these things going on. It’s snapshots from people’s lives, and it was written in fragments, so this form just seemed to work for that.”
At the centre of this play is a focus on the problems we encounter as a result of the walls we build up around ourselves. We are encouraged to question why we make the decisions we make and why we push people out, and the play also shows us our potential for breaking down these walls in order to persevere for what we truly want. Nwokoro also emphasises her concern for documenting, crucially, why we put up these walls. “I ask the actors themselves,” she explains. “Before the play, the audience gets to see real people rather than the characters, revealing something personal about themselves as a way of breaking down barriers, which sadly not all the characters are able to achieve.”
The characters in this play are both like and unlike ourselves. They are the ordinary people we encounter every day, and in whom we encounter ourselves: the man-eater, the school-kid, the obsessive post-it note-maker. Aspects of character may be exaggerated, but ultimately we relate to their human frailties, their passions and their pains. There is always that regret of not being able to achieve what we wish, that relentless desire to escape our sense of guilt and inadequacy, and that refusal to face up to those real failures which are holding us back. This short play engages with some of the most prevalent themes and ideas presented in so much great drama of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. One would not be wrong in comparing some of the concerns touched upon in Keep it Casual to the works of someone like O’Neill or even Chekhov. This play is no mere tragedy or comedy, but a touching and poignant mixture of both. Its naturalism and moments of hilarity offer an amusing veneer which hides something much more heartbreaking beneath. It conveys sadness, but also gives a sense of hope that, ultimately, we have the potential and strength to break out from our bonds and our barriers, and embrace both the people around us and the people we want to be. This play is absolutely worth a trip to Hild Bede, where you can experience for yourself why Hild Bede Theatre continues to maintain such a glowing theatrical reputation. Keep it Casual definitely promises to be something special.
Keep It Casual is showing at 7pm and 8.30pm on Thursday 9th May in the Hild Bede Undercroft. £3.50 DST/ HBT, £4.00 Students, £4.50 no NUS.