In a former ambulance depot in Tottenham Hale, Philip Ridley’s latest creation comes to life. This epic parallel world of wholly isolated nation states resembles the worst dystopias imaginable in contemporary fiction. Mareka is a 1950s America with laws enforced to the letter by the Grand Marshall, everyone wears pink, and milkshakes are consumed with religious zeal. Cotna is the future, where people are have numbers instead of names, and watching meteor showers without protective eyewear causes you to hear voices. Then, there’s a community of exiles in the mountains, living in caves, wearing skins, and praying to pre-Christian gods. A storyteller/historian in yet another time and place documents these people and their trials.
These kingdoms have a lot of detail, and a lot of emptiness. The story sprawls over three hours, zipping back and forth across time and place, leaving a swirl of slow understanding, further questions and obvious metaphor in its wake. The text is rich and beautiful, fragmentary and challenging, but it’s only partially reinforced by design. A scaffolding base reveals occasional moments of visual detail, but they generally pale against the language. Karagula is equally marvelous and horrible, an experience for all the senses with stories that enthrall and disturb in equal measure. But Ridley’s Tolkien-esque ambition never reaches its full structural potential.
Individual scenes are just as likely to delight as they are to be forgotten. If Karagula was a tapestry, it would be patchy and moth-eaten in some areas, others would have exquisite embroidery, and still others would be completely plain and ill-fitting. The gaping plot holes leave room for interpretation, but the better scenes feel all the more out of place. Ridley either needs to pare the script right back, or add another couple of hours to join up these worlds more fully. The whole experience is equally delightful and frustrating.
Nine actors play all roles in some exemplary multi-rolling. Producing company PigDog is committed to diversity in casting and audiences, and this cast is admirably so. Obi Abili is a terrifying brutal Grand Marshall in Mareka. Emily Forbes is the fiery leader of the mountain outcasts, initially motherly, then ruthless. Lynette Clarke is similarly versatile, as a flamboyant and vicious Marekan and a cold number in Cotna. None of the ensemble ever let their energy drop; their work is just as fantastic as Ridley’s best scenes.
Director Max Barton approaches the text with clear vision and choices that aid clarity, even in the muddiest sections of text. Designer Shawn Soh has moments of brilliance (beasts with coats of cable ties and a throne of gears and propellers for the narrator are fantastic surprises), but the shoestring budget is noticeable in the inconsistent application of detail.
Despite it’s issues, Karagula packs an emotional punch with social commentary and nihilistic fortune telling. Mareka foreshadows a Trump-led America, and Cotna is a land where technology has ushered in the loss of individualism. There are moments of wonder and horror, and sheer bafflement. Philip Ridley’s vision is commendable, but the execution isn’t quite there, leaving the audience partially sighted. It’s a wondrously alive and human production and like any given human being, it has it its faults and its virtues.
Karagula runs through 9 July.
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