Monday, 2 September 2013

Theatre review: The Bunker: Morgana & Agamemnon

Edinburgh shows are wasting no time in coming down to London this year, and first up we have a double bill from writer Jamie Wilkes, who transposes stories from mythology to the trenches of the First World War in The Bunker. Morgana and Agamemnon are the stories being paired at Southwark Playhouse (at the Festival they played in rep with a third piece riffing on Macbeth.) Director Jethro Compton has set the plays in a claustrophobic design that sees the Little Theatre transformed, and the audience squeezed on benches around the same bunker as the characters. In Morgana a group of 13 public schoolboys who nicknamed themselves after King Arthur and his knights all volunteered for the War together. A couple of years in and only Arthur (Dan Wood,) Lancelot (Sam Donnelly) and Gawain (James Marlowe) remain, still warning each other to watch out for the machinations of Morgana despite the presence of a much more tangible enemy.

In the dreamier Agamemnon, a badly wounded officer (Marlowe) refuses treatment, and spends a battle in the dugout self-medicating with rum. Having all but ignored her in the time he's been in Flanders, he hallucinates a scenario where his wife (Serena Manteghi) finds a new man and, Clytemnestra-like, plots his death on his return.

Apart from the setting there are other common threads that run through the two pieces, like the characters' recourse to prostitutes and music-hall songs to cheer them up in the bleakness, but Compton manages to get very distinct performances out of all four of his actors that help give each story its own flavour. In Morgana Manteghi plays both the major female figures from Arthurian myth, in flashbacks to the Guinevere figure both Arthur and Lancelot loved as boys, and in the scenes of Gawain romancing a local girl - who Lance warns could be their version of the evil sorceress. Actually more harmful than either of these women is Lance himself, whose jealousy over Gwen leads him to lash out in the wrong direction.

After the interval I found Agamemnon to be the better half of the double bill, a much more nebulous, subjective piece that casts the Agamemnon figure much more squarely as the villain, powered as it is by his guilt - not having replied to his Clytemnestra's letters, he only eventually wrote to her to apologise for sleeping with a Flanders prostitute, and now imagines his battle wound to have been delivered by his wife in revenge. Wood's Aegisthus stand-in too is sympathetically portrayed, a bumbling asthmatic bullied as a coward for his inability to fight. Their real reaction to Agamemnon's return from war may be quite different from the one he thinks he deserves.

Both of Wilkes' scripts could have done with some tightening up, and this reflects on Agamemnon in particular, being the second in the running order so the effect of two-and-a-half hours on hard benches starts to be felt (there's also a muddy floor so don't bring a bag if you can help it as there's nowhere to put it.) But in all other respects the latter piece is stronger, its dreamlike messing with time and intense exploration of a mortally wounded man's psyche are more interesting than the more literal war-is-hell story of Morgana, which though well-performed feels well-trodden ground. Great work from the director and actors though through both pieces, in creating an intimate setting that makes the most of the script.

The Bunker: Morgana & Agamemnon by Jamie Wilkes is booking until the 21st of September at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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