The People Are Singing – Review

Why does the barbarism of war inspire so many to seek comfort in song?

This is the central thread that writer Lizzie Nunnery uses to weave her tale of the ravages of war, seen through the eyes of a little girl. Based on the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, it is part fantasy, part reality.

Developed  as part of the British Council’s World Stages project, Nunnery has teamed up with Ukrainian director Tamara Trunova, in order to give a voice to those in countries whose work is silenced or censored. Such was Nunnery’s conviction, that she travelled to Kiev and met people, who had participated in the 2014 Maidan protests. There is no denying that the passion in giving a stage to these unheard voices resonates throughout the production.

Cora Kirk is cast in the central role as Irina, the child, and is ever present throughout, so has to bear the responsibility of cohesively piecing together the fragments of this tale. At times she ably unifies these strands – depicting the horrors of war that result in starvation, murder, and attempted kidnapping.

Kirk brings a notable physicality in her performance, she is also quite adept at showing the varied range that her role demands. The scenery is used well to demonstrate these abilities, but when needed, a singular spotlight, a pause for effect, and Kirk’s delivery is more than enough to let the gravitas of the script take root amongst the audience.

We all know how I love to pontificate on more than the performance. For me the theatre experience is more than just the performers, it is set design, sound management and lighting, elements that can lift a production to higher planes of enjoyment. It is here where  the nagging doubt at the back of my mind begins to make itself heard.

It goes without saying that the subject matter is dark, so the dark lighting for most of this production was always going to be an element that director Trunova, along with Lighting Designer Alex Dixon, would use to their advantage. There are flourishes from Dixon to punctuate the darkness – from the use of candles to the focus from using a solitary spotlight to heighten tension like a tightly wound up coil ready to be sprung. Yet, these flourishes were few and far between, and the over reliance of just shrouding the stage in near darkness was in the end an overused ploy.

As good as Cora Kirk is, the nagging doubts in the back of my mind is that you just don’t quite get your head round the fact she is meant to be portraying a child. This is not to her discredit. A braver choice would have to be to cast a younger actress to drive home the horrors of war.

And then there is the fantastical element to this offering. The idea of a fantasy world, the dark woods inhabited by witches is wakening a world of Grimm’s fairy tales, but unfortunately, this aspect is always drowned out by the depiction of war.

As for the singing. It is what it is. Melodious. I don’t know what’s being sung and at times I don’t think I want to care. Nunnery and Trunova use song to create a kind of mood music and its use of song tries to set the tone and feel of the dark subject matter. The final act is the introduction of a choir from Manchester’s Ukrainian community, which gives it a kind of authenticity.

The intimate setting of the Royal Exchange’s Studio is very well used for this effect and I have to pay tribute to how this production is lived and breathed after the proverbial final curtain has come down, with the choir and the singing carrying on in the bar afterwards.

Language is always going to be important in a production such as this. Song they say can overcome the barrier of language and at times it doesn’t matter, but only when it does.

You get the feel for it until you see the Ukrainian members of audience getting more than a just a feel for it. To a Ukrainian audience this production is simply much more – and it is that hurdle that this production ultimately fails to overcome.

Verdict: Politically charged and evocative, though it fails to seamlessly knit together the strands of song, fantasy and the horrors of war.

What: The People Are Singing By Lizzie Nunnery (Directed by Tamara Trunova)
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester
When: 6th April 2017