When a new space really comes into its own
It’s a tough call for new theatres to make their mark on the London scene – especially when, like the New Diorama, they’re stuck in otherwise untheatrical locations. Fledgling fringe theatres have it hard: no one’s heard of them, and they often don’t have the material resources to improve the situation. For this reason, Trestle’s performance of Burn My Heart, an adaptation of Beverley Naidoo’s novel about the 1950s Mau Mau uprising, which will tour the country until mid-November, is something of a landmark production for the New Diorama.
Productions I’ve previously seen at this theatre have accepted the standard 80-seat black box for what it is, and taken its layout as prescriptive. Burn My Heart, however, reminds us of the transforming power of a good set design. Anoushka Athique’s mesh of sewn sheets covers the entire stage area and transports us to a symbolic 1950s Kenya. Almost endlessly inventive, this is one of the most cunning sets I’ve ever seen.
Benches become Jeeps, cloth becomes fire and the ground is elevated to become sand dunes. It’s unusual for a designer to be so in tune with the theatrical intentions of a company, but the result of Athique’s collaborative work with Trestle is evident. The space is easily adaptable and can be manipulated to facilitate the more physical sequences of the production. A montage of silhouettes, created behind a cloth screen, is particularly chilling: as the actors loose their distinguishing physical features, we see the raw brutality of an interrogation of those suspected to be Mau Mau sympathisers. John Purkis’ lighting design also enhances the emotional frictions of the story: strong reds, whites and blues conflict with a palette of more earthy African colours, and cause the action we are watching to take on an unnerving hue.
With only five actors to play a considerable number of roles, Trestle exhibit an impressive versatility; women play men and adults play children, switching between roles without the slightest glitch. Able to imprint their identity on a space which does not immediately lend its self to physical radicality, Burn My Heart is the work of a true company with a strong and coherent artistic vision.