An empty stage, cool blue lighting. A metal-framed hospital bed, and to each side of the performance space thin muslin curtains – translucent veils that obscure rather than hide. On the back wall, a screen. Bolt opens with moving image. Our point of view is from the ground, and we are looking up into the face of a youngish man calling ‘Liv, Liv’ in an agitated voice. He’s twitchy, guilt-ridden: ‘Get, up Liv. I’m sorry… Come on, we were both going at it… Please, get up… Oh God there’s blood…’ . The lighting state changes, and a woman walks on. Grungy clothes, a scraggly plait, and a black eye. She speaks in the second person, calm but accusing: ‘You… You… You…’ She could hear him, she chose not to respond, she waited till he’d gone away to get help. ‘I’ll have to be gone when they get here’ he’d said.
The woman is Olivia Townsend (played by the show’s writer and director Siren Turner), hospital inmate. Perhaps she’s in a regular hospital, or perhaps she’s been sectioned – but no, it becomes evident that she’s in a rehab clinic, and is being dealt the cold turkey treatment. There’s a nurse, an older woman called Carol (played by Maresa Schick), who has hidden secrets that eventually impact on Liv’s story of her dysfunctional drug-driven relationship with boyfriend Jef (Alexander Ellis), and with her friend / housemate Lula (Sophia del Pizzo), a pale-skinned long-haired pre-Raphaelite beauty who we meet both on-screen and on-stage. Liv and Lula have a complicated relationship, like slightly incestuous sisters who love each other deeply – and who are obviously deeply wounded by each other’s behaviour.
The on-stage Lula lounging on the bed is, we gather, a figment of Liv’s imagination. Liv tells her (and us) that she is ‘held hostage by memories’. The intertwined realms of memory and imagination are represented by the on-screen characters of Lula and Jef (the renegade junkie boyfriend), and – less successfully – by their onstage appearances, as they pop in and out of the hospital room. Both Sophia del Pizzo and Alexander Ellis are strong actors to camera, but far less convincing on-stage. It is also, of course, harder to play a figment of someone’s imagination onstage. Having introduced the device of film as memory, it almost feels redundant to have Lula and Jef there in person too.
And it must be said that although Complicite, Punchdrunk and Sleepwalk Collective are all cited as influences on Fugitive Theatre’s work, what’s lacking in Bolt is the strength of movement-trained, stage-savvy performance that all of these companies specialise in. Yes, this is primarily a text-based work, but it would be great to see here a more European approach that recognises that a thorough training in physically-embodied theatre doesn’t exclude the voice – far from it, all the companies mentioned above are adept in delivering text without sacrificing physicality. There’s far too much fiddly gesturing and awkward blocking, rather than robust physical performance, in the live performance elements of Bolt. The actors often just don’t look relaxed and comfortable in the space.
What does work are scenes in which plot and character move forward onscreen whilst the onstage actors are held still in silent witness. There are also several scenes where onstage spoken text and onscreen text kind of echo or overlap each other in a way that is dramaturgically interesting. And I like the use of the ‘veils’ to each side of the stage, where characters lurk in a kind of here-but-not-here limbo, staring silently forward as action unfolds on stage or screen.
As her starting point in writing Bolt, Siren Turner used a Nan Goldin self-portrait showing a bruised face, which she kept as a reminder never to go back to the man who had hit her. That and the story of street photographer Dash Snow who lived fast and died young – age 27 of a drug overdose. Siren Turner’s Liv is a photographer, and photos (never seen by us) are used in the play as pivotal icons, unlockers of her memory, and crucial game-players in the plot. I wonder occasionally whether using the photos on-screen in tandem with the moving image might have been an interesting choice (although possibly one considered and rejected by the writer/director). But regardless, I like the dramatic device of the photos as catalyst to action in the play.
The script is somewhat over-written, with some plot twists and turns rather unbelievable, and there is sometimes an uncomfortable balance between naturalistic dialogue and poetic flights of fancy. For example, when Jef describes the moment of a hit in the vein, waxing lyrical on a ‘thousand tiny stars bursting’ it’s a nice bit of writing, but seems slightly odd and out of character coming from Jef. The onstage dialogue between Liv and Lula often feels stilted, and lacking any real dramatic spark – although as said, Lula/Sophia onscreen gives an excellent performance, a complex and muddled mix of innocence and experience; and Alexander/Jef onscreen combines attraction and repulsion most cleverly. The use of moving image as our lead character’s memory – with many filmed scenes repeating throughout the duration, each new viewing given a different context by the degree of new knowledge we’ve acquired – is a very nice device.
There is a bigger question about the doing-it-all-yourself syndrome. Of course it is possible to write, direct and play the starring role in a show. But sometimes handing your work over to a director, or stepping back from performing, or working with a dramaturg, can make for a stronger show.
These criticisms aside, there’s a lot to praise in Bolt – not least the adventurous interplay between screen and stage action. A company to watch – I’d be very interested to see if they continue their exploration of the stage/screen dynamic, and in what ways.