The world has been feeling a bit doom and gloom at present. Though, one could arguably say that the news cycles are always covering catastrophes and disasters, these past few years have felt particularly dismal. The climate crisis is becoming an ever apparent reality, and recent political turmoil in the West has brought a new kind of dread to a world already wounded by the ongoing effects of a major pandemic. It’s not hard to see why people look for escape, that they indulge in the escapism of fiction and stories. Our great power is our imaginations, and while that power can be destructive, it too can conjure worlds out of thin air for us to dwell in; just for a little while, in an attempt to make the difficulties of reality more bearable. It is this very human pass time that Emily Malloy’s new play, Hell, examines through a lens of disconnected communication and a fractured world.

Directed by the writer, this rehearsal and development performance of Malloy’s play situates itself in an unspecified post-apocalyptic world. Framed by a male and female storyteller who double up as the play’s characters, the plot follows English speaking Ash (played by Ross Barbour) and German speaking Em (played by Rosina Aichner) as they grow to know and understand one another through the stories they share with each another. Hell delves into the mystical wilds of German folklore, as the magical forests of ancient Europe are intercut with the turmoil of Ash and Em’s broken world; the play weaves the threads of world-ending narratives into a tapestry of intrigue and gentle melancholy.

As R&D performances go, this was one of great beauty and promise. The bare bones of Hell reveal a narrative that holds a great love for storytelling and an understanding of how deeply human the act of story making is. This is a play about humanity in its essence, and the cycles of being that tend to run in circles through our history; from the ancient peoples who gathered round fires to tell stories to keep the darkness at bay, to a man and woman huddled round a battery powered torch in an abandoned theatre, doing exactly the same thing. This is also an intensely German-influenced play, not only in its use of the German language and involvement of German folklore, but also in the fact that it utilises many of the dramatic techniques proposed by the German theatre practitioner, Bertolt Brecht. Hell is a highly Brechtian piece, using fourth-wall breaking narration and interaction with the audience and technical crew. It is a clever device that keeps the audience on their toes between the moments of magical escapism as Em weaves her tales of gods, water spirits and sacred forests. Both Ross Barbour and Rosina Aichner give beautifully textured performances as Ash and Em – Ash’s frenetic energy and despair are handled expertly by Barbour, while Aichner balances both Em’s tension and stillness with clarity and care. Though the script needs some development in its narrative direction, Hell surely has a glittering future, worthy of the ancient gods of Asgard.

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