The Language Archive - Review by Simon Jenner
New Venture Theatre’s championship of recent American drama is so invigorating we take it for granted.
In the U.S. women dramatists are increasingly to the fore, particularly those who’ve won the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. It’s hugely prestigious, open to women writing plays in the English language. It’s supported a generation including Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Emily Schwend, Audrey Cefaly, Nina Segal, Clare Baron: all enjoyed London and West End productions in 2018.
So it’s good to see a prizewinner from 2009 and a dramatist unknown to most of us. Julia Cho’s The Language Archive follows the Midwest James McLure double-bill here in January. And it’s as different from that as it is from nearly all these other writers. There’s a whiff of a parallel with David Auburn’s Proof mounted by NVT in 2017, though this is about languages, not theorems.
Naturally it’s about love, too. Sam Chittenden’s patient direction of this five-hander suggests misunderstandings between eleven characters unfolding in a rich stand-off. It’s a brave new cast too. Though Bridgett Ane Lawrence as Mary, and Culann Smyth as Resten (and minor characters) are known from several productions, Cata Lindegaard, Alex Bond and Justine Smith are all quite fresh to acting, making NVT debuts too.
This is a teasing play with another central performance. Tim McQuillen-Wright’s set is a magical bricolage of reference-drawers, in a rough pyramid that almost sings. There are features like a revolving section presenting granary bread, a bed complete with Resten sliding out underneath. Just a few repositioned chairs complete a supremely elegant set. The overall off-white’s offset by Keith Dawson’s spectrum dazzle of lighting which further morphs underneath. Simon Scardanelli’s sound manages one of the most seamless envelopes of sound with any NVT set I’ve seen: with euphonies of lost tongues, or at a crucial threshold. Chittenden’s naturalistic costumes pucker with old-fashioned timelessness.
Bond’s George pursues dying languages before their last practitioners die. But a chance of hearing Elloway, language of the River
People, is slipping away: George’s latest subjects, Smith’s Alta and Smyth’s Resten won’t speak it to each other because he won’t eat her food and she’s furious he took up the armrest in the airliner whilst travelling here. They’ll only curse each other in English. So the chance of their singing converse grows remote.
His wife Mary pursues George with mute written pleas she denies are hers, and giving up the struggle, meets an elderly man (Smyth) who’s packed in being a baker. Meanwhile adoring linguist assistant Emma never tells her love for George, who himself compiles a despairing collage of declarations in all languages when he tracks Mary down to a bakery.
That’s through hopelessly decent Emma, who’s wandered there by serendipitous accident, distracted by the press of Esperanto, a universal language she learns from an instructor (Smith again, full of positive thinking) because George loves it. She creates a small acoustic surprise for George out of what she’s learned, left lying around. But will she press her case after George presses the old cassette recorder?
Like several dramas, this is a play of two halves where the latter takes heart-stopping flight. The languorously unfolding first part at eighty minutes is too long. Chittenden’s a master of unfolding and perhaps too patient with her material. She’s mostly blessed with her actors and casting three unknowns is an act of courage and renewal which mostly works.
Lawrence as Mary lights up everything she touches; stifled emotions, shuddery tiny disavowals, the forlorn woman by the railway station. And finally the woman in the bakery radiant with new mission and pounding the bread – we’re subjected to real flour and dough – every time her ex makes an asinine point.
Lindegaard’s Emma is moving: whether stifling ardent love, glowing and watchful in her supreme one embrace, anxious in her Esperanto lessons, and wondering when subjected – in a train-carriage dream – to its inventor Zamenhof (Smyth again). She appeals
with a truthfulness and warmth that’ll make her worth watching.
Coupled or solitary Smith and Smyth are consummately versatile. Whether Alta in silver locks, or the Instructor in her black helmet, Smith invents nonchalantly worldly accents: an amused tangy authority or imparting eastern folklore. For someone fresh
to acting Smith too debuts with distinction.
Smyth too makes clean delineations. Whether querulous but good-humoured Resten, Baker the weary baker, even omniscient Zamenhof,
the supreme language inventor turned optician: with a set of instruments he tests Emma’s eyesight in a carriage. She’s going blind with love he suggests. Emma’s forever being examined.
By contrast Bond doesn’t attempt the American around him and this works. Playing George as a flustery English academic in bow-tie and corduroy, Bond’s cast in a part where hesitancy and bewilderment is key, and – a former West-End dancer – he inhabits
George’s fussy orbit with aplomb. He’s still feeling his way vocally; this tends to slow the first half, though as ever it’s
a word-perfect production.
The second act was indeed almost another world. The quick cuts, deft use of a set that now dis-assembles in part, that bread baking, life decisions. Each character projects their storyline to a distant future.
Finally Cho steps further away, ending with a narration of outcomes which echoes Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Or more distantly George Brant’s Elephant’s Graveyard, given rehearsed readings here last year and returning fully in this. I wonder why Cho doesn’t
start with a mute suggestion of her end, which could easily dispel the slightly alien effect – not really Brechtian – at the conclusion.
The Language Archive is a play of enormous reach and ambition that mightn’t quite realise its potential, or perhaps reach the potential it ends with. Cho might have earlier refracted more complex themes she’s already touching. It’s far more important to
see plays like this though than deadly work ticking all functions. Chittenden too confirms her boldness and tenderness. She never accepts the comfortable, something informing her own dramatic writing. We can only look forward to what else she – and ensemble members – go on to achieve. And we need NVT to continue presenting us with plays like this.