The Political Hearts of Children – Subtlenuance and the complex relationship with the child we were. (theatre review)

“An actor is seen as if through crystals.

Inspiration in stages.

One mustn’t let in too much literature.”

Antonin Artaud

The relationship between the audience and the actor in the world of theater is a regularly examined one, but the relationship between the play write and the actor is one that can be assumed to have been ‘figured out’ by the time the production is at performance stage. Writer writes, actor interprets and transforms under the watchful eye of the director, audience appreciates end result. A night at the theater is about a polished product, the audience interaction consists of witness and response.

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In a wonderfully interesting piece of theater, Subtlenuance have asked seven actors to give a story of their childhood to a play entitled The Political Hearts of Children. Six writers are called upon (one actor will interpret his own story) to write a small play using the basic narrative from the actor.  After the story has passed through the minds and come out the fingertips of the writer, it is delivered back to the actor who performs it for the audience.

Anyone who has had as much therapy as I have knows it is not our actual childhood that defines us as human beings, but the way we have interpreted what happened. The movement between child and adult is a tidal ocean that never stills. Childhood is a thing that is never over, we constantly reinterpret it as we move through our lives. Every stage of maturity seems to broaden the period we think of ourselves as children, and reduce the time we have spent as adults. That child that we both love and hate never leaves us just as the promise of all that we might possibly do or be never leaves us when we are children.

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An essential component of our childhood is the interpretation by ‘the other’. That other eventually becomes our adult selves, but it is also our parents, siblings, school teachers, friends and other adults who act as a Greek chorus to our lives, offering interpretations that in themselves will often become more influential than any event. When a writer hears a person tell them a story of their life, it’s the spaces between the words, the rise of the brow at a crucial moment, the words chosen to convey a special style of message, the overarching universality of the childhood experience that seems so deeply unique despite the common themes that capture the imagination. The narrative has been offered to the universal – it is no longer specific to the person who lived it. Or rather, it is seen for what it is; a story composed of many narrators who’ve come together to be the voice of the adult.

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For an actor, to offer ‘their’ story, to the craft of theater is to both ‘be’ the child they were, and transform that creature into the child we all are. It is an act of liberation to take the narrative so deeply felt and offer it in such a way as to embrace the connection between all of us. To capture our heart, the actor must connect with us, find the place where we ‘know’ because we feel – that is the place of common ground. They offer up their lines with a different set of gestures. Now the task is to engage, not enthrall and inform, and this requires removal of the self. Now the task is art.

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And this is the very interesting notion that lies at the heart of Subtlenuances beautiful production, The political hearts of children. We, the audience know each actor is ‘acting’ their own story, but we also know that our relationship as audience to a performance takes precedence over the meat and bones of the story itself. We witness the child being sacrificed for the adult at the same time as the adult works to get as close to the child as possible. In the case of Mark Dessaix, this includes a light comic relationship with the horrors of gay-related abuse at the hands of cruel kids. In the case of Kathryn Schuback its the memory of a moment of intense fear despite the truth of absolute safety. In the case of Kelly Robinson it was the abuse at the hands of other children when she was special to a teacher, and in the case of Stephen Wilkinson it is the deeply serious battle to gain back-yard territory lost to a swarm of egg-protective magpies. All seven stories are touching in their own way.  To see each of them performed by an actor who lived the moment, let it go, and turns it into something else on the stage is thrilling.

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The production is kept to ninety minutes, could easily have been longer, but wisely wasn’t.  One is left wanting more – always a good sign in the theater. Paul Gilchrists direction is pared down, so the narrative, the writers and the actors shine as the stars of the show. The venue is downstairs in the Tap Gallery. The setting couldn’t be more perfect, as it highlights the creative complexity of the act itself.  A theme as overwhelming as childhood could swamp the incredibly interesting idea of a writer reinterpreting an actors story, but this never happens. One is always aware 0f the writer behind the actor, something the venue and director ensure through subtlety. The Political Hearts of Children is a wonderfully engaging piece of original theater that is on until the 21st of April. Grab your tickets here.

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