Mark Bibby Jackson reviews A Mirror by Sam Holcroft at the Almeida Theatre.
I must admit to having something of a pathological aversion to weddings. So, when I am invited to the wedding of Leyla and Joel at the Almeida Hall, my back prickles slightly. For one thing, I have no idea who the bride and groom are.
Things are compounded when I see the Almeida Theatre dressed as if I am attending a real wedding and I am invited to sign the wedding book – thankfully I was not asked to purchase anything from the John Lewis wedding list.
Thus starts A Mirror by Sam Holcroft, a wonderful exploration of the real and imaginary set in a fictitious land where theatre is censored.
As we enter the auditorium various members of the cast patrol the aisles while we take our seats. Most of the audience carries on their cheerful chatter obliviously. Then the wedding starts as Joel (Micheal Ward) waits impatiently for the arrival of his bride (Tanya Reynolds).
But this pretence belies another. As a member of the ministry departs the wedding hurriedly, we are informed that the real play will commence.
We are warned the police might arrive at any minute and are praised for our bravery in risking attending such an underground the play. Thus, making us accomplices in this unlicensed and subversive performance.
Leyla removes her wedding costume and becomes her real character Mei, an assistant in the Ministry of Culture (Censors), and the master of ceremony becomes Čelik, the director of the ministry. Soon, Joel re-enters as Adem, an innocent mechanic who has just submitted a play to the ministry, and who has a meeting with Čelik.
Or does it? For as the cover to the programme for A Mirror informs us, ‘This Play Is A Lie. Or Is it?’
Censorship in the Theatre
The main theme of A Mirror is censorship. In the programme notes Lucien Bourjeily explains his struggles with getting plays authorised and performed in his native Lebanon. This might well be the model for A Mirror.
Underlying this is the moral debate as old as Antigone and Creon as to whether the greater good outweighs personal liberties. As Čelik states, “There are no pure things on earth. Compromise is not corruption.”
Following the principles of Pirandello, Jeremy Herrin’s direction presents us with a multi-layered work of art. The play involves characters reading or performing a play which itself is a play within a sham wedding. All of this is within the play itself, of course. The mirror has many sides allowing differing sightlines.
While this might sound confusing, the wonderful and dynamic staging cuts through this. Jonny Lee Miller guides us through all the shifts of perspectives allowing us to understand which reality we are being presented.
A Mirror Cast
There is a touch of the Goebbels about Miller’s appearance and persona, as he tries to persuade the naïve young playwriter Adem – and ourselves – that there is a deeper truth than the literal reporting of what happened. This he argues is art.
While Miller takes centre stage and drives the play forwards with unrelenting gusto, Reynolds plays off him – like a classic comedy duo. Her sense of comic timing is excellent. We largely see the play through her eyes.
Streatfield jaunts around sharing jokes with the audience – but which one? Is it the ones who have come to see an underground sham wedding in an unnamed country, or those who came to see A Mirror at the Almeida in London?
One scene when the four main protagonists play out a play by Bax, which could have come straight from Goebbel’s propaganda handbook, provides a great farcical interlude to the serious subject matter.
Ward excels as Čelik’s nemesis. But is his innocence too good to be true?
And this ultimately is what we are left questioning – what is real and what is unreal? And surely that is the great magic illusion of propaganda itself – a mystery wrapped up in a riddle? Or fake news? You decide, so long as you are brave enough to risk arrest by the censor police.