Saturday, 20 July 2019

Review: Holy Land (Elegy Theatre, GM Fringe)

Thursday 18th July 2019
The Empty Space (formerly Footlights House)

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe is on from 1st-31st July. I’m continuing my reviews of a selection of this year’s festival programme on this blog and on North Manchester FM. The next play I saw was Holy Land by Elegy Theatre, which was on at The Empty Space (formerly Footlights House) in Salford, on Thursday 18th July. You can hear my radio review of this play on today’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. Here’s the blog version of the review…

Holy Land is written by Matthew Gouldesbrough and directed by Patrick Medway, and it stars Gouldesbrough, Rick Romero and Hannah Morrison. The show’s blurb promises a story about ‘the dark side of the internet’ – but, to be honest, Holy Land is about something even darker than the dark web: humanity.

I’ll say up front that this is the most disturbing show I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe so far. Don’t get me wrong, it was the promise of darkness that attracted me in the first place (which says a lot about my tastes, really!), but Holy Land went to places that even I hadn’t anticipated.

The play presents three separate stories, each told through a monologue by one of the characters. None of the stories are linear in chronology and, in fact, they don’t initially appear to be stories at all. The set is simply a set of screens in the middle of the stage, which periodically interrupt the action with screeches, static and bursts of montages about internet danger, social media and morality. The physical separation of the performers on stage – they often stand in opposing corners of the performance space, or cross over past one another without making contact – and the sparseness of the set serve to make the stage area seem worryingly large. I’ve been to shows at Footlights House (now The Empty Space) before, but I don’t remember it seeming so disconcertingly big.

Gouldesbrough plays Tim, who introduces us to Holy Land – a website he runs that contains the ‘worst’ videos on the internet. Despite numerous references to the dark web during the play, the unsettling thing about Holy Land is that it’s a site on the surface web. Easily accessible and – as Tim assures us – completely legal.

Tim’s introduction to the website is intercut with the introduction to Kate, played by Morrison, a young woman who gabbles cheerfully and rather naively about – amongst other things – Meal Deal sandwiches. And by Romero’s Jon, a man who appears to have just bought a gun on the internet.

Tim’s description of Holy Land and, more importantly, the consumer desire it’s capitalizing on sets us up for a rather intense exploration of the limits (or lack thereof) of human morality. As he reminds us several times, actions have consequences – but Tim seems notably detached from the potential consequences of his own actions. It’s a disconcertingly convincing sales pitch, which uses the fictional website to offer some pointed commentary on the state of the current internet and social media.

However, Holy Land is more than a diatribe about the evils of the web. As the fragmented and distorted narration(s) unfold, it becomes clear that the play is a complex and cerebral piece of storytelling with strong roots in older traditions of theatrical tragedy. Tim’s sales pitch gives way to a story about his childhood, and about a particular encounter with a young man he describes as ‘evil’.

Meanwhile, Jon’s monologue about guns and explosives becomes interwoven with a story about a troubled and broken marriage, which (for all its philosophical and existential style) actually conjures some well-realized characters and situations that almost – almost – introduce a little lighter humour into the proceedings. While Holy Land doesn’t really use much comedy – except of the darkest possible kind – the tonal variations in Jon’s story give a sense of texture to what is quite an unrelenting tale. Gouldesbrough’s writing is assured throughout, and there is a confident sense of control to the narration.

I don’t want to say too much about how the three stories unfold and converge, or about how Kate’s monologue fits into the overall story. As always, I don’t like to give story spoilers – but in this case I also don’t want to spoil the experience of the story. The moments of realization I felt as I came to understand connections and implications were a big part of my enjoyment of the show.

‘Enjoyment’ is a strange term to use to describe a play as dark as Holy Land. With repeated reference to violence, rape, pornography and voyeurism, Holy Land doesn’t shy away from content that many might find distressing (and there are explicit trigger warnings posted outside the theatre). Nevertheless, I did enjoy the play. Gouldesbrough’s intelligent and assertive script is well-directed by Medway, who makes excellent use of the performance space and the movements of the three performers to create an atmosphere of bleak vastness that’s almost devoid of hope. A bank of screens and a small stool with a laptop on it doesn’t really give us much to cling to!

But I was really blown away by the performances. Morrison gives us with an intriguing and ultimately devastating performance as Kate, a young woman (and it’s never made clear exactly how young she is) who veers between childlike enthusiasm and a bitter sexuality that seems spurred on as much by spite as anything else. By contrast, Romero appears to offer a more balanced, calmer performance, exuding a nearly likable rationality, for all his bag of guns and bombs.

And Gouldesbrough… well, he is pretty memorable as Tim. Moving between terrifying and heart-breaking – and all points in between – Tim is a figure of tragedy, but also of horror. It’s an incredible performance from Gouldesbrough, and it’s hard not to feel some empathy at the play’s climax.

My only criticism – or perhaps question – about Holy Land is whether it really is a play about the dark side of the internet. When we eventually realize what story it is we’re following, it’s one of human depravity, morality and tragedy. Yes, the internet is used to monetize these things, but Holy Land’s story transcends the technology that surrounds it. (I’m not sure that is a criticism after all.)

Holy Land is an assured and devastating piece of theatre. It goes to some disturbing places, but with a confident sense of direction and narrative control. Elegy Theatre have created an impressive production here and – with a reminder of content warnings – it’s a strong recommendation from me.

Holy Land was on at The Empty Space on the 17th-19th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be on at the Bedford Fringe on 21st-24th July, and the Camden Fringe on 2nd and 3rd August. For the full programme of events on at this year’s Greater Manchester, visit the festival website.

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