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All Edinburgh Theatre **** review: The Garden

Insightful dystopia

Traverse Theatre (Venue 15): Tue 18 – Sun 30 Aug 2015

Truth permeates The Garden, Zinnie and John Harris’ semi-opera, commissioned by Aberdeen’s sound Festival and playing off-site at the Traverse.

In an overcrowded dystopian genre, we’re used to seeing extinction level events, we’re used to seeing a hero save the day and we’re used to seeing the struggle for survival through adversity. The Garden shows a little-seen side of the story – a quieter more subdued side, but with no less impact.

Based on a short play of the same name by Zinnie Harris, The Garden is a semi-opera set in a small apartment kitchen in an overcrowded block of flats. Mac (Alan McHugh), a scientist part of an important sub-committee and his wife, Jane (Pauline Knowles) have lived through an ecological disaster. There are too many people and not enough resources. Nothing grows anymore.
The cosy venue and the close proximity to the couple, their kitchen and their scars create an incredibly intimate atmosphere. One which personalises the idea of the dystopia. It’s not all the excitement of the Walking Dead or The Road. If such an event were to happen – you wouldn’t be the hero, you’d keep going, you’d keep trying to live your normal life, because what else would you do? You have to try.
The Garden is a very clever piece of theatre that explores the normal, imagined hope, the loss of hope, and ultimately, futility. It asks what would you do when there is no hope?

With an almost equal mix of speech and song, the flow of the piece is curious. The operatic moments add a dimension of intensity to an incredibly normal and banal conversation. It works because of this obvious contradiction, being both surprising and heartwarming. John Harris provides the perfect accompaniment at the keyboard – complementing and highlighting the dramatic intensity and not overshadowing it.

McHugh and Knowles play their roles with an effective mix of hope and despondency. Knowles in particular is gripping as she battles with a real, or possibly imagined, hope in the form of a young apple tree growing through the kitchen lino. But it’s McHugh as Mac, the dependable and pragmatic one, who challenges the audience the most as his hopelessness is laid bare.
Overall, the most striking aspect of The Garden is an overwhelming sense of truth that permeates the entire production. Zinnie and John Harris have produced an intense, bold take on the dystopian genre that brings a mature insight into what an apocalyptic future would actually look like to most people. Perhaps a little depressing for some, but most definitely refreshing and well done.

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