On the one hand, some will love it for its multiple layers (we’re watching a play within a play within a play at one point) and quasi-intellectual rants on narrative storytelling and what really counts as art. Haters will yawn that it’s smug, pretentious and overly self-involved.
In an attempt to recreate the danger involved with staging an underground theatre production – something we in the UK are fortunate enough never to have experienced for real (though companies like the genuinely exiled Belarus Free Theatre have also envisaged for us in the past) – the play is initially disguised as a state-sanctioned wedding.
Jonny Lee Miller, Tanya Reynolds and Micheal Ward in A Mirror at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
In Jeremy Herrin’s (People, Places and Things) production, the commitment to this idea seeps out of the auditorium and into the foyer via a continuation of set designer Max Jones’s pastel pink balloons. An announcement tells the audience to take their seats for the ceremony, rather than the play, and on our chairs is an order of service. Only once the patrolling guards leave, satisfied with the nuptials unfolding, is the pretence stripped and does the play proper – well, the play within the play – begin.
Adem (Michael Ward) has been called up by the ministry for writing a verbatim play, The Ninth Floor, documenting the interactions of his neighbours. The minister Čelik (a shouty Jonny Lee Miller), a hypocrite who keeps a stash of banned Shakespeare plays for his own enjoyment, claims he wants to nurture Adem to write a decent play, as he did the now successful playwright Bax (a pompous, potty-mouthed Geoffrey Streatfeild). Adem’s current one, detailing the illicit behaviour and thinly-veiled political dissatisfaction of his neighbours, offers too honest a reflection of the nameless, ageless dictatorship they’re living in.
Tanya Reynolds and Micheal Ward in A Mirror at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner
It’s funny in places, like when Čelik’s objectified assistant Mei (a fittingly awkward Tanya Reynolds) is asked to run through a sex scene in Adem’s play with him, which she does, robotically. However, it gets bogged down in the waffle of Čelik’s argument: that all characters need an arc. And at two hours straight through, some baggy middle scenes are a tedious watch.
Still, interesting points are raised about why totalitarian states fear stories and believe performances of plays, with their potential to spread ideas to the masses, are more dangerous than bullets. Also food for thought is the argument that few of us would come off well were everything we said to be written down and shared publicly. (If you’ve watched the recent Black Mirror episode Joan Is Awful, you’ll get the idea.)
A reveal at the end, that pulls us back to the play’s outer layer, is cleverly executed and justifies much of what’s come before.
To say a play is like Marmite then come down squarely in the middle by way of a verdict might seem a cop out, but while The Mirror is uneven, likely to alienate swathes of viewers and could do with trimming down, its inventive form, fluid staging and rallying cry to protect free speech are all commendable.
|What||A Mirror, Almeida Theatre review|
|Where||Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, Islington, London, N1 1TA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Highbury & Islington (underground)|
15 Aug 23 – 23 Sep 23, 7:30 PM – 9:30 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|