A review by Richard J Thornton for EXTRA! EXTRA!



Blue Elephant Theatre presents


The Book of Disquiet


Adapted by Mark O’Thomas from the original text by Fernando Pessoa


Directed by Nicholai La Barrie


Blue Elephant Theatre


14 June – 2 July 2011



It’s a risky trick to induce the same feelings in an audience as the feelings portrayed on stage. In this case, as the four ensemble characters weave through the standing promenade crowd, their existential stress mirrored in the audiences strain of an hour long stand-a-thon. The production has to work harder to keep your attention away from your aching feet, but, with the ingenious inclusion of the silent but charming Geoff (cleverly played by an unwitting audience member chosen fifteen minutes before the show) – it succeeds.The Book of Disquiet in its original form is a modernist quasi-novel by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. The novel by its nature is disjointed, multi-voiced and erratic – and the play follows suit. The action takes place between an interior-lit water-cooler in one corner, a chalk-drawn beach on one wall, opposite a lonely white toilet seat on the other, and a quadrant of pub tables in the centre. This arrangement decentralises much of the drama and catches the audience in a whirlpool of action as the confusion and distress of the characters spins around us.

Artistically, the play's strongest move is to draft in an audience member to play a scapegoat character whose nonchalance infuriates his colleagues because they believe he is responsible for their imminent sacking. The tension between the actor character's urgency and the audience member who’s been given no lines is a beautiful expression of the anger and disbelief an existentialist feels when those around them fail to react to the absurdity of the world. Moments like these are frosted windows into the quirky direction of Nicholai La Barrie - they shed light on his vision without revealing any distinct form.The strongest scenes are those which retain the clearest traces of devised construction. The dual-responsed beach scene where two men reply with same words but different tones to their lover’s apathetic self-absorption reveal the irrelevance of the personality of others in the eyes of a depressive existentialist.

The acting here is also spot-on - Alex Clarke’s playful but proud male is pitched to perfection, and Emily Wallis’s ability to play both the dreamy-cum-scathing femme fatale on the beach and the neurotic, panic-stricken office worker announces an actress of real class.The most disappointing thing in the production is its lack of rhythm. The scenes don’t quite communicate, leaving chasms that the tired legs of the audience can’t quite leap. The meta-theatricality of introducing certain scenes which involve Geoff also grind, shifting focus from the building story onto the audience member’s reactions around you. The over-dramatic lighting also added to the reminders that it is a play you’re watching and when coupled with the excessive dry ice made the production feel tainted with a hint of drama-school black box.

Nicholai La Barrie’s personal direction is clearly well focused, and he makes the most of Clarke’s electric magnetism, Sara Lewerth’s fierce, dominatrix stature and Wallis’s overtly school-girl vulnerability. The only shame is that the holistic finished article fails to cut with the same intensity. This could be excused under the qualification that an existentialist work shouldn’t feel well rounded, but ultimately, theatre needs to induce the audience into emotional revelation, and you begin to wonder whether the help of a dramaturge wouldn’t go amiss.

This is a play that’s worth seeing if you like to be able to see the blueprints of a production beneath its polished exterior. It’s not seamless, but its rawness in many ways compliments its themes of restlessness with monotonic office culture and the repetition from generation to generation of formal relationships. You may find yourself wanting to like this play more than you actually do, but the charm of its imbroglio will remind you of the importance and intrigue of inventive fringe theatre.


Box Office: www.blueelephanttheatre.co.uk / 08444 77 1000
Blue Elephant Theatre
59A Bethwin RoadLondon SE5 0XT
020 7701 0100
Tuesday - Saturday @ 8pm,
14th June - 2nd July
Tickets: £10/£6 (£5 Southwark Residents)



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