views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Olives and Blood
Brixton East
27th October 2013


Charlie Kerson as Trescante

Photography supplied by Liminal Space

Liminal Space's artistic director Prav MJ makes absolutely no bones about how excited and privileged they have been to host the European premiere of UK writer Michael Bradford's Spanish Civil War piece. And with good reason, which I will get on to later. After Bradford attended the premiere, I just hope he was as privileged to have MJ stage his work. It is the perfect fusion of director and writer, form and function, intelligence and emotion, propelled by desire (both as a theme and evidenced by the passion of all involved) and amplified by the evocative and moody venue of Brixton East.

Flitting between the 1930s and 1990s, the show tells the story of the assassination of Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (Louis Labovitch) by nationalist forces and, in particular, Juan Luis Trescastro Medina - here Trescante (Charlie Kerson). The lead-up to the death of Lorca - a homosexual and liberal - is intercut with the lead-up to a court hearing on his killing, set to be attended by Trescante. But as the pair are haunted by their own demons and angels - Trescante by his father Eduardo (Mark Byles) and Soledad (Melissa-Kelly Franklin), the granddaughter of one of his victims and Lorca by bullfighter Ignacio Sanchez Mejias (Sam Churchill) and an admiring teacher (Tom Osbourne) - painful personal and universal truths are brought to bear.

With writing at times as poetic as his subject, Bradford has put one of the playwright's own passions front and centre. Lorca once said: "To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves." Here, there is desire in spades. Lorca seeks knowledge and beauty, Soledad a truth of her past. But for all the tragic endings here, none is more pathetic and futile as Trescante, whose need for acceptance from an overbearing father, "to do right" by his country, for ultimate glory, only manifests itself in his metaphorical and literal impotence. Kerson, MJ and Bradford all play their part to make this villain three-dimensional so we may be inclined to sympathise, if not empathise, with his pathetic lot. An unkempt, hunched man in his dotage, an arrogant bully-boy desperate but unable to prove his worth to anyone in his youth, Kerson always keeps tragedy just behind his eyes.

Tom Osbourne and Alice Pitt-Carter

Photography supplied by Liminal Space

Where Trescante is out of control, Labovitch's Lorca is measured, assured, a perfectionist. He is the god of his own theatre, bringing the best out of Margarite Xirgu (Alice Pitt-Carter) with ease. He has a universe inside his heart that he is desperate to create. Upright and honorable, he's the gleaming deity to Trescante's filthy devil living in squalor, unwilling to take control even to the end. It's order versus chaos, good versus evil, liberalism versus fascism, yet having, for example, Lorca symbolically privy to Eduardo's denouncements of his own son, MJ hints at a necessary moral or ontological dualism by rooting them in the same time and space.

As well as playing up those themes (and plenty more besides, that I don't have space to discuss), she has a knack for the utterly stylish. On entering the exposed and open space, there's a bar with nibbles (including olives) and even on the coldest of October nights a distinctly Mediterranean feel. Wisely not touching the upstairs of Brixton East, its bare brick walls, wooden beams and part-dismantled clock face are exceptionally moody. They suit the melancholy tone of the piece, but can also believably represent Trescante's bare-bones apartment or Lorca's jail cell. A lot is done with just a writing desk, bed and trunk via projections of fascist scenes. Gareth Prentice's symbolic but dazzling lighting design transforms Lorca into a ghost, a vibrant golden matador and drenches the stage in blood.

Mark Byles with Louis Labovitch and Charlie Kerson

Photography supplied by Liminal Space

Although in truth, it's not like our troupe needs much help in driving emotions across - each offers part of a wider jigsaw, without a duff note among them. I've already sung Kerson's praises, but Labovitch and his uncanny resemblance to the actual Lorca is also a joy to behold. He holds court with hints of Benedict Cumberbatch, erudite yet caring. Byles' Eduardo and Alonso both have hints of sneery pantomime villain about them, but that just provides a refreshing counterpoint to the weighty moral questions hovering over Trescante's head.

If you don't know the subject matter before walking through the doors, don't let that put you off. Behind the tale rooted in reality, it's a story about a man killed only for his beliefs and lifestyle, and another whose failure sets him on another course entirely. Commanding and melancholy, it intertwines political discourse with stark character study leading to a heady and affecting climax. Lorca would be proud.

Olives and Blood opened on 23rd October and runs until 10th November 2013 at Brixton East.

Nearest station: Brixton (Victoria)

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