The year 2020 has taught us nothing if not how painful the passing of time can be. James Hartley’s surprisingly prescient 2016 play This Modern Coil is a rumination on fate, free will, fear, and the power of imagination as two soldiers await something, anything, in no man’s land.
Inspired, of course, by Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, Hartley’s script also borrows from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy as two soldiers Booker (Shayan Askari) and Zachary (Edward Frame) weigh up their options while trapped standing atop land mines. Is the answer to wait in the hope that help arrives or should they take fate into their own hands and step off the mines, come what may? As the two men attempt to pass the time with tarot cards, allegorical stories, and simple daydreaming, they discover that time has begun to bend around them, at times stretching forwards like prophesy and at others fracturing into its many possibilities.
A key escape mechanism for Booker is his imagination and his ability to will himself somewhere else. In the barren rocky no man’s land of Rose Montgomery’s set, Kaze Productions uses illusions of light and sound to transport the audience into Booker’s mind including his memories of the beach. While the crashing waves and watery blue lights were erring on heavy-handed, the production design illustrated the transparency of theatre and audiences’ commitment to suspend disbelief. When the production is two men thinking allowed on stage, the landscapes of their minds become the stage within the stage, the play within the play. It’s the meta hypothetical heart of philosophy and the recursive momentum of absurdism. In this play’s philosophy, Hartley covers the famous theories like Schrödinger’s cat, Freud, and the key questions of nihilism. In particular, his script captures the paradox of free will with a chilling clarity in Zachary’s argument with his momentarily sentient land mine, but other philosophical garden paths proved more meandering than meaningful throughout the play.
The two actors maintain a camaraderie throughout their disagreements and repeating deaths and bounce well off the mix of musings and memories they present to each other while waiting. Frame is the straight-faced of the two, choosing no-nonsense reasoning that trips him up in more emotional moments. Askari, on the other hand, plays a romantic, passionate Booker who approaches the world with more wonder than his conservative friend. His performance built a broad, open characterisation that was at times unpredictable. Both offer solid performances that could have benefited from more dynamic character arcs. There was also ample room for more nostalgia between the two considering their long friendship from school boy days.
If COVID-19 quarantine has left you with too much time with your thoughts, This Modern Coil offers no relief. But if you have a penchant for asking why, then the winding, fracturing, repeating world of no man’s land will feel like home.
This Modern Coil is running at the Pop Up Stairs Theatre from September 23rd – 27th
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