Dominic Kimberlin reviews Subject to Requirement which went up in The Free Festival during the Edinburgh Fringe. It was written by David Lewis and put up by Bristol-based theatre company Makeshift Wings.
The Free Festival is by far the highlight of the Edinburgh Fringe. Whilst there is no shortage of incredible theatre on offer during August, my favourite experiences are those that have cost me nothing. This year, one such experience came from the Bristol-based theatre company Makeshift Wings with their original absurdist play, Subject to Requirement.
The play depicts the serial interrogation of an individual, the eponymous “Subject”, by an unidentified governmental body. There are elements of both Kafka and Orwell in the situation of a person forced to undergo suspicion and questioning without being aware of his captors’ motivations, and references to dystopian landscape made up of ‘sectors’. The Subject shares his cell with another captive who seemingly has more knowledge of both the agency behind their fate and the Subject’s identity, calling him “Cornelius” despite the Subject’s adamant protests that this is not his name.
The Subject is confronted with a series of bizarre interrogators, each with their own idiosyncrasies and methods for extracting what they believe he knows, and each professing their own loyalties to the “Protocol”, a set of rules determining their conduct. The level of characterisation is especially strong and enables some fascinating and amusing interactions between the actors. Particular highlights included the “Incredibly Well-Dressed Man”, “Man With a Beard” (also the play’s writer David Lewis), and “Childish but Elegantly Dressed Girl”, the latter of which deserves credit for her believable performance as an infantile yet sinister questioner. The venue space was transformed into an interrogation room through a simple and effective technique. When not interacting with the Subject, the actors stood around him with their backs turned, creating a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. In this world, the walls literally had ears.
Owing to the peculiarities of the people with whom the Subject interacts, he is left without any certainty as to their sincerity and so undergoes numerous psychological strains as he is unable to provide them with what they want. The audience are also placed in the same position by having the same knowledge and perspective as the Subject, an unnerving experience which was further heightened by the lighting effects. Between interrogations a black bag is placed around the Subject’s head, which is also the cue for a blackout. Thus, the audience is invited to engage in the same process of determining the truth about the individual and his surroundings.
The writing deserves especial credit as, although the piece is both humourous and surreal, it maintains an internal logical consistency throughout, without falling into obscured incoherence. The Subject’s gradual dissolution appears legitimate and reflects contemporary research into how an individual’s identity breaks down under extreme pressure. The play achieves a fine balance between entertainment and information, providing the audience the means to engage with the issues surrounding not only the practice of interrogation, but also the wider areas of personhood and trust. It is well worth keeping an eye out for any other productions from Makeshift Wings in the future.
Photo credit: Makeshift Wings