THE HARVEST – Soho Theatre, London.
Written by Belarusian playwright Pavel Pryazhko, The Harvest is an unusual concoction of sparkling physical comedy and subtle commentary on modern life in Eastern Europe. Some of the jokes don’t sit quite right and the play is inescapably odd. But the cast carry off the slapstick with aplomb, and the characters are complex enough to give the play pleasing depth.
Pryazhko’s script is imaginative, but distinctly surreal. The plot is a simple farce involving four inexpert apple-pickers, Egor, Ira, Valerii and Lyuba. Aside from their names, we don’t learn much about each of the characters. For example, we never find out why they are picking apples in the first place or whom they are picking them for. Despite this, the characters are engaging and convincing. They are childlike in their cluelessness and short attention spans. But they also all display hypochondria and anxiety, and there are hints that their lives are far from rosy. The cast do a great job conveying this complex collection of characteristics (Dafydd Llyr Thomas as Egor gives a particularly engrossing performance), but it is still a shame not to learn more about the apple-pickers’s backgrounds.
Michael Boyd’s direction is very effective. The farcical plot develops with exactly the right pace, the actors interact with each other in a charming and wholly believable way, and capers involving the many apples that adorn the set are also well choreographed. The set, brilliantly designed by Madeleine Girling, is as much of a character as any of the apple-pickers. With about a hundred green apples hanging from the ceiling against a pure white backdrop, the set is delicate and elegant when we first see it. Even when it is later torn to pieces, the set looses none of its artistry. In fact, the set’s dramatic destruction is probably the highlight of the piece: simultaneously funny and oddly thrilling.
The Harvest’s underlying message is somewhat unclear. The earlier part of the play is full of innuendo, some of which is so crude it feels almost grating. Still, the innuendo suggests there may be other double-meanings and metaphors in the play. There is also something about the apple-pickers’s situation that isn’t quite normal. The characters often refer to ‘them’ – the orchard’s invisible owners or perhaps some sort of ‘big brother’. Maybe the apple-pickers are lost in some kind of purgatory, or perhaps these bizarre elements are simply a way of portraying a culture of paranoia. These motifs give the play a strange and slightly dark twist. However, the metaphors, if they exist, are obscure and as a consequence nothing about the play really sticks in your mind. It is entertaining and often funny, but fails to really seize the imagination.
The Harvest falls short of excellent, but if you are a fan of absurd comedy that makes you laugh and feel unsettled at the same time, then The Harvest will deliver.
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By Andrea White