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SOPHIA=(WISDOM): THE CLIFFS - Performed at New Theatre, Newtown - Review by Faith Jessel

Prepare for an experience. Expect the unexpected. Deliberately bizarre, strangely beautiful and ultimately transforming, like stepping into the world of a postmodernist artwork, Sophia = (Wisdom) The Cliffs offers a wonderfully macabre deconstruction and willful contradiction of meta-narrative and what we think we know of theatre and its traditions. This is a theatrical encounter that demands interaction, either intellectually or emotionally as we are required to ‘Think Harder.’ 

Eccentric, divisive and visionary are just a few words to describe Patrick Kennedy’s design and direction. Adapting but remaining faithful to the essence of Richard Foreman’s original script, he states in his directors notes that his work attempts ‘to capture the absent present.’ Kennedy delivers this in abundance. You never truly feel you are in the moment, more like a dream, a deja vu and an awakening of the unconscious mind, where snatches of events or pictures of commonplace objects are juxtaposed and irrationally metamorphosed. 

Kennedy’s celestial voiceovers, acting as an unreliable narrator and foreboding provocateur, highlight his glee in our possible struggle. We are inevitably baffled, bewildered or discomforted. The end, (or perhaps the beginning) of each scene, is punctuated with a discordant doomsday blast of sound, while unsorted words appear on a screen, amplifying that this is not a straightforward fiction, nor are we a passive audience. Challenging assumptions we make as a society, there is also no meaning unless you purposely make it. Slowly you start to recognise and interpret common threads and themes such as: What makes us human? How are we socially determined? 

While the dialogue is minimal, robotic and distorted, Kennedy’s atmospheric set and vivid lighting design (advised and plotted by Mehran Mortezaei) along with an ingenious soundscape, most effectively builds a fanciful, surrealistic world, immersing the audience within a rich tapestry of nostalgic music hall songs, pop culture references and equally random and purposeful items. Every cue is expertly synchronised and executed. The absurdist bubble, never in danger of bursting.

Decked in rich rococo costumes and ghoulishly powdered faces and wigs, the talented ensemble moves through a series of still life paintings like carefully choreographed clockwork dolls, acting as one unit, one mood, with one monotone voice. Their unwavering concentration, timing and precision is engrossing. All individuality is stripped back. We palpably feel the void of an eerie, ironic stare, requiring us to interpret or project absent emotion upon them. The increasingly grotesque tableaux, builds in waves, becoming hypnotic in repetitiveness, making it difficult to tear your eyes away. 

A standout moment is when the characters of Sophia (Beatrice McBride) Hannah (Lara Kocsis) and Rhoda (Kirsty Saville) slowly meld to become one person. Reminiscent of Marie Antoinette, they move with disconcerting remoteness but steely poise, merely complying rather than living. Agustin Lamas, their kingly male counterpart, exudes gravitas with an underlying aching weariness, his foot tapping like a metronome, warning us that time is relentless. 

The introduction of Izzy Azzopardi as the metaphorical Mountain Climber was a jarring reminder we could be in the present as much as the past, but always moving onwards. Luke Visentin playing Ben, encapsulates a fascinating charisma and controlled energy, trapped just below his wooden surface and dandified demeanor.  The aptly named Factory Workers (Katie Regan, Heather Tleige, Charmaine Huynh-Enculescu and Nehir Haitpoglu, Celeste Loyzaga) move deftly and seamlessly with the complex task of multiple scene and props choreography, while also serving as a Greek chorus of observant, disembodied witnesses. 

Meaning is made more through the discussion at interval or afterwards, where the many layers of symbols, props, cultural references, sound effects and disjointed words can be wrestled with, and conundrums tied together. You won’t stop thinking about it because nothing makes sense until it does. Indeed, Sophia = (Wisdom) The Cliffs is a journey, one that could alter the way you think theatre and story should be, to what it could be. After all, life is a series of absurdities and jumbled meanings.

Walk into the performance space and surrender.’ In the words of Kennedy, 'Feel the images blur together to create the world. Hold onto what happens because then it will be over.’ The spectacle may or may not start or end where you expect it to, but most likely, ‘Not yet.

4 and a half Sledgehammers out of 5

Sophia = (Wisdom) The Cliffs plays at the New Theatre, Newtown until January 27th  Photos courtesy of Daniel Boud

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