A Mirror at Almeida Theatre
The Almeida is bustling on a beautiful summer’s evening; pastel coloured bunches of balloons festoon the foyer, and audience members are handed an “Order of Service” on entering the theatre. Inside, a lone cello line lilts. A lovely setup for a wedding! Or is it? The illusion is whipped away, as “test sirens” reveal that Sam Holcroft’s dystopian setting of the “Motherland” forces tonight’s characters to conceal a play within a matrimonial ceremony, attempting to hoodwink authorities and slip through strict censorship laws, which forbid profanity and state criticism in art. The audience is invited to leave if they feel unsafe at this point.
Each player immediately has a double role: the betrothed, Leyla and Joel, are in fact portraying Mei and Adem, a timid office secretary and a salt-of-the-earth mechanic-turned-playwright. But the balance of power – both in the political hierarchy and in the quantity of dialogue, which is given compelling cogency by Jonny Lee Miller – lies with Čelik, previous wedding registrar and now high-ranking officer in the state’s culture department. Čelik is slippery; he appears initially well-intentioned, and does not wish to treat Adem’s blasphemous first attempt at a play as a criminal offence, instead offering to nurture his raw artistic talent, moulding it to benefit the state. His previous self-indulgent project is writer Bax, whose insincere but patriotic plays now dominate the state’s literary scene. Bax and Čelik take a slimily enthusiastic interest in Mei, the latter offering her theatre tickets and sharing “illict” secret literature with her (Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth).
The 120-minute show is convincing as an immersive, innovative scrutiny of the fragile hypocrisies of state censorship and oppression, but it succeeds more in theatrical illusion and bravado than in leaving the audience with resounding revelations on current global threats to artistic freedom. The viewer is left with a gulf between the final dramatic unravelling of the wedding ruse and the stirring words featured in the programme, from Lebanese socio-political playwright and activist Lucien Bourjeily, whose passport was confiscated after his satirical play (titled Will It Pass, or Not), mocked censorship bureaucracy. There is also missed potential in exploring connections and contrasts between a state’s control of words and the persistently equivocal political correctness debate in theatre.
Nevertheless, Jeremy Herrin’s production is spectacularly slick, as the audience at one point navigates a play within a play within a play. Tanya Reynolds’s Mei alluringly unfurls, every detail and mannerism attended to as she metamorphoses from “uptight” to strident. A murmur of perhaps Barbie-emphasised appreciation passes through the audience as she points out in reply to Čelik’s insistence of a flirtation between them that, as a man in control of her future, he is not fascinating, she is just scared.
A Mirror’s ambitions are compelling and adventurous; despite their lack of weighty satisfaction, the work’s consistent commitment to surprise, entertain and challenge shines.
A Mirror is at Almeida Theatre from 15th August until 23rd September 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.