Half Breed - Bristol Old Vic

Half Breed - Bristol Old Vic

'Truth is truth to the end of reckoning', Act V, Scene I, Measure for Measure

Half Breed’ tells the story of Jazmin, a mixed-race girl from a small West country village who aspires to escape from the stifling small-town environment she has grown up in.  Based on her own experiences, the play is written and performed by Natasha Marshall, who multi-roles to create the various people that inspire and hinder the protagonist in the pursuit of her ambitions. Her journey is a struggle but the audience back Jazmin all the way, sharing in the difficult navigation of her dreams and fears.

It is easy to feel apprehensive as Marshall steps out alone onto the grandiose Bristol Old Vic stage, and it is quickly apparent that this production would be better suited to a more intimate setting. The imposing proscenium arch rising high above Marshall’s head seemed to put a barrier between her and the audience, which undermined the intimate style of performance, delivered as though it were a tale of youth told among friends.

What struck me most about ‘Half Breed’ was the elegance of its language. Infused with elements of spoken word, the dialogue flowed beautifully, with Marshall weaving between different characters and in and out of Jazmin’s own interior thoughts with ease. She gives rich, in-depth descriptions of each scene which more than compensate for the absence of set or supporting actors. A smattering of pleasing rhyming couplets remind us that the events we witness are rehearsed, as the spontaneity of Marshall’s delivery almost deceive us that the action is unfolding live before us.

The set design was another standout aspect of the production. Geometric orbs hang delicately in the air, which we soon understand to be rocks, symbolic of an intrinsic element of her attachment to her best friend Brogan and to the village in which she has grown up. The rocks light up, pulsing and glowing in moments of tension and have a central role to play in building the magnitude of the production’s shattering climax.

The versatility of Marshall’s acting is commendable, as the diversity of the characters portrayed throughout ‘Half Breed’ is impressive. Marshall’s presentation of the ditsy but loveable Brogan is a particular treat, whose endearing loyalty holds fast through to the play’s dramatic conclusion. Generally, the array of characters she plays are comically larger than life, although perhaps with the exception of the Jazmin herself. In a semi-autobiographical piece of work, playing yourself as a distinct and ‘theatrical’ character poses a significant challenge, although it could be said that this served to heighten the realism of the piece.

While less dazzling than other roles, Jazmin is charmingly personable and we are at once at ease with her. Replete with witty asides commenting on the challenges of her situation, we are given lucid insight into the impact of casual prejudice on an individual and how it can tragically curtail a young person’s aspirations. Her indecision is prominent throughout, lamenting ‘my brain is as confused as my skin’, but it is a genuine relief and delight for the audience to see her sheer determination overcome the poisonous influences propping up the bar in the Rose and Crown.

The return to the setting of the pub on several occasions throughout, complete with the tiresome jukebox on repeat and the jangling of the slotties, is as claustrophobic for the audience as it is for Jazmin and conveys well the sense of stagnation that is characteristic of small villages, particularly for young people. Marshall expertly inhabits all its regulars who, while being distinct characters in themselves, all chime in with the same voice of exclusion towards ‘the only black in the village.’ Many going to see ‘Half Breed’ will be surprised by the apparent acceptability of the ostracising of Jazmin which, in a country whose largest cities are increasingly multicultural, we may consider no longer a mainstay of British culture. In smaller communities, however, such as the niche village culture that Marshall portrays, this oppression is still rife and largely unchallenged.

Having enjoyed a successful run at the Fringe and picked up a handful of award nominations, Natasha Marshall sets out on her UK tour to tell her story, and she does so with grace and passion. The personal touch permeates her endeavour, and this engenders a heightened feeling of sympathy for her honourable plight in all those leaving the theatre. After an enthusiastic applause concluded her performance, Marshall remained on stage to thank the audience and wish her luck in taking this same production, somewhat unforgiving in its portrayal of her adolescent environment, back to the village in which she grew up. This takes some courage, and I sincerely hope she finds the same understanding from audiences there as she did in the auditorium of Bristol Old Vic. Fighting against a community determined to dictate the narrative of who (or what) she is, Marshall was inspiring on stage; ‘Half Breed’ proved to be endearing and entertaining and is a testament to the value and importance of telling your own story.

 

*****

Five stars

Flora Snelson