The world premiere of Marion Bott’s new play, Moormaid, at the Arcola Theatre is an unflinching portrait of individuals inextricably caught up in the fears and tensions gripping Europe today.
Set in a flat in Berlin, an art teacher, Melissa (Sarah Alless-Shahkarami) and her former student Mehdi (Moe El-Bar) confront their expectations of freedom and disillusionment with contemporary society. Both are driven to the edge of despair in different ways, and the play unfolds beneath the tension of their unconventional relationship which keeps them grounded despite the pressures of the outside world.
Though the play is firmly situated in a contemporary Berlin, there is a vein of the surreal which is woven throughout, represented by the ‘invisible’ world inhabited by Mehdi’s brother, Khan (Ali Azhar). Khan haunts Mehdi and the mercurial relationship between the two brothers creates most of the force and movement of this play. Ali Azhar brings a great depth to the portrayal of Khan and his skilful performance is a great pleasure to watch.
Bott’s script is both terse and lyrical, funny and profound, even as it grapples with complex social problems in a humane and compassionate way. The stage and set of Moormaid offer the perfect backdrop to this intricate psychological drama. A minimalist setting highlights the vivid primary coloured pigments with which the characters paint their bodies at pivotal moments in the play’s development. The sparse stage is an embodiment of the central metaphor of the artist’s canvas in Bott’s play.
Commitment to creative passion is the path to both self-fulfilment and true freedom in Moormaid, and the characters explore different ways of expressing their pain and hope through art and dance. The choreography of the dance elements of the production bring the dialogue and the emotional conflict of these scenes to life.
While the heightened sensory experience of the production makes Moormaid a visually impressive and engaging play, the delivery of the dialogue is uneven and the lyric imagery doesn’t gather enough force to bear the weight of the plot’s symbolic evocation of a place between life and death. Nevertheless, the overall impression of the performance poses provocative questions of the extent to which we all find ourselves in limbo, at one time or another, and must make a conscious commitment to living with integrity and faith in one another.