A successful artist invites her less accomplished and bitter “friends” for a reunion, resulting in a terrible accident involving the titular pool. Her newly comatose body then becomes the subject and object of the group’s newfound success. The result is a searing examination of exploitation and jealousy in the art world.
British playwright Mark Ravenhill, most famous for his contributions to in-yer-face theatre in the 90s, has written Pool (No Water) as an especially dense and difficult script. Filled with long passages of text and no designated speakers, the director of the piece is tasked with assigning dialogue to however many actors they see fit, essentially creating a shared monologue.
Director Amber Liberte utilises a cast of six actors to bring Ravenhill’s words to life, including Hamish Annan, Amy Atkinson, Katie Burson, Zak Enayat and Grace Goulter as the core ensemble. Without the space to become fully-realised characters, the cast play a five-headed hydra, bound together by collective resentment. Annan, Enayat and Burson fare the best with the teetering tone of irony and self-consciousness in the text, diving deep into the shallow depths of their characters’ souls; there’s a genuine glee mixed with guilt in their words and actions.
Additionally, Liberte makes a fascinating choice to bring the envied artist and her fictional work on-stage, played by a focussed Michelle Blundell in complete silence, and even giving her a name (Ellen Mason). She opens the play, piecing together fragments of her work, eventually constructing a mini-exhibition around the bare space. Unfortunately it doesn’t feel fully integrated into Ravenhill’s narrative and lays alongside the performance rather than with it. The resulting effect is Blundell loitering in, out, and around the space, while the the rest of the ensemble perform. It’s doubly disconnected as the text often refers to her, and enacts dialogue from her, but the ensemble refuse to acknowledge her presence. The overall concept designed by Anuewela Howarth intrigues and even inspires curiosity, but never comes together completely.
Ravenhill also litters the text with references to aging, sagging skin and grey hairs, not to mention the time that has passed since the characters’ glory years. While a minor detail, for a play so fixated on the frailty and ugliness of both the human soul and body, it does feel like a point of neglect that the cast is so noticeably young. Instead, these seem more like the jaded and disaffected youth of Bret Easton Ellis’ early novels.
Physical theatre elements in the show work well to add dynamism to a potentially static text, and the choreography is well learned and consistent, giving the world a broken and robotic feel. At its best it creates a disconnect between the characters’ bodies and damaged minds, their uneasy limbs and twisted faces contradicting their hollow words. Less necessary are movements that merely underline moments in an overly literal manner. The lighting design (Paul Bennett) and soundscape (Emi Pogoni) also provide effective blocks to build and disrupt the space, creating an almost Lynchian world of unreality for the actors to inhabit.
The relentless tempo of the dialogue and the frantic physicality of the piece hardly ever let up, resulting a in a tight hour of theatre, but one that is occasionally rushed into narrative murkiness. In particular, the opening moments of the production could be paced a little better, allowing the audience to adjust to the play’s specific theatrical grammar and language. The play’s moments of slowness and silence, on the other hand, work well to help us fully appreciate Ravenhill’s blunt and brutal poetry.
Pool (No Water) is an unflattering picture of the creative industries, but its cynicism is often balanced with a deliciously satirical bite. Whether or not you’ve felt the gnawing bitterness that the characters express, this probably hits closer to home than we’d all like to admit. If not for the dark sense of humour, the sheer heartlessness might be numbing.
A solid production of a play that picks apart the myth of so-called artistic camaraderie, where tall poppies are cut down only to reveal the secrets that lie in our dark, dark hearts. A unique and challenging night of theatre.
Pool (No Water) is presented by Burrowed Time and plays at The Basement until 26 May.