'What a piece of work is a man... in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!' Act II, Scene II, Hamlet
There is little more frustrating in theatre than realising that a show’s potential is worth more than it as a finished product. In the case of the Tin Drum performed at the Bristol Old Vic, Kneehigh’s creative mastery, which makes them one of my favourite companies, is frustratingly undercut by the confusion of what the play wanted to achieve.
Kneehigh are fantastic at creating dark, richly warped pieces of theatre which are equally nuanced and evocative. The Tin Drum is a piece of post-war surrealism where at three years old, Oscar (the owner of said drum) decides to remain a child and thereby reveals the war-torn world for what it really is. The play is marketed as ‘part Baroque opera, part psychedelic white-out, part epic poem’, yet despite how striking all these parts are individually, they don’t come together quite so well.
The collage of music, taking inspiration from rock-opera, ELO –style synth and even Lady Gaga illustrates each character and their individual quirk, however rather than being revelatory, has a reductive effect on the piece. Tin Drum begins promisingly; the set inhabits a frozen limbo space with a grand staircase and marble floor, which serves as the bubble in which Oscar reveals his story. A chandelier lies broken, surrounded with glass and flowers; haunting music accompanies dancing couples who turn as if lost in time. So far, so evocative. Kneehigh still deliver in terms of set; their use of shadows, light and puppets serve for some beautiful moments of clarity amongst the noise of the piece. And yet for some reason, by the time we reach the interval it is too easy to wonder what a Lady-Gaga inspired dictator has to add to the perfectly executed elements of the play.
The production’s attempts at trying to mock and make infantile Hitler’s regime by way of caricature soldiers and psychedelic song seems strange and ends up being a little sloppy itself. The play could have been simply stylistic and pertinent but it feels like a mix-mash of genres, or two creative teams clashing on one production. Compared to their previous shows such as The Red Shoes, which was innovative, deliriously dark and a thrilling piece of theatre, The Tin Drum doesn’t hold its own. I expected more from such a gripping subject, especially as the creative team have the benefit of being post-Cabaret, which is a shocking and essential example of how music can confront and explore difficult themes without seeming ridiculous. Imagine the School of Rock shoved onto Schindler’s list, and you can imagine how off the play sometimes felt.
I can see what they are trying to do; the blur of music and introduction of the surreal is supposed to show the confusion of war. The music could indeed be a fusion of the recognisable contrasted with the incomprehensibility of extreme violence, and equally it could act as a retreat from the increasingly hostile regime, which penetrates into Oscar’s life as his father becomes a fascist General. This defiant glare meets the eyes of big brother, which hang from red banners reminiscent of swastikas. But in this case, a lot of this analysis comes as post-show interpretation; during the performance everything feels a little too uncertain at what it is trying to achieve.
This is not to say that Kneehigh are not often stunning. Oscar, not yet a real boy, is acted via a puppet, and Sarah Wright must be commended for her puppet direction which has so obviously taken extreme time and care to execute. The wooden Oscar, symbolic of his constant stasis as he is frozen in childhood, is extremely unsettling. Despite being a boy of three, there is something sadistic about his white oval face, cutting look and crisp voice, which, coupled with the ominousness of the tin drum leaves Oscar a dark force to be reckoned with. There is a lovely moment when Oscar floats in a plastic womb accompanied by synth music. The audience undergo a lyrical interpretation of organic birth, however this remarkable entrance sets up high expectations which are lost when during the first half Oscar appears very little in what is supposed to be his own story.
The second half loses its charm a little as the play begins to drag towards the end, becoming quite samey as Oscar’s ambition ‘to change the world’ and ‘make them listen’ becomes numbingly repetitive, and Oscar’s final brandishing of the Tin Drum comes as an anti-climax. There are some poignant lines which endure; such as war being described as an effect of ‘the stuck record of man-made humanity’. The dreamy sequence with the moth and lightbulb is repeated at the end, suggesting that life is cyclical and that mankind will make the same mistakes again. Although it is a familiar message it retains pertinence, particularly as the play is shown at the Old Vic the week of Remembrance Sunday. Oscar’s warning that ‘something is not right’ echoes hauntingly, but is also sadly evocative of the play itself. Lots of good ideas, but this time Kneehigh just miss the beat.
Esther Bancroft, English Literature student, I:M Theatre Editor