There is something of the movie Twelve Monkeys about this brand new production from award-winning Australian writer Ben Ellis. Premiering at the terrific Theatre 503 in Battersea, it’s a story of a world gone mad, as a result, directly and indirectly, of GM crops.
Poet No. 7 manages to combine the intimate with the environmental, the local with the global and the past with the future to startling effect, much like the film that apparently inspired it. Regrettably, it also has, in common with the movie, a depressingly apocalyptic vision which bears witness to the pessimistic, anti-progressive times that we now live in.
The story is difficult to summarise without giving too much away. Throughout the seventy minutes, four very different characters occupy segments of the stage, barely crossing into each others’ worlds. There is the businessman, whose moral dilemmas are personal rather than professional, particularly when it comes to striking a deal to grow genetically modified crops for the Americans on Australian soil; the council worker whose job it is to clean up the mess of dead bodies left by the bombs that are dropping on the country; the librarian who is besotted by a man she stalks using binoculars from her apartment; and the madman, locked up, he claims, for telling the truth about what is going on.
One of the crew said to me afterwards that she wished she could see the production again for the first time in order to better understand what was going on. And she has a point, there is definitely a sense in which the play deliberately makes you work to follow its plot. In fact, ‘plot’ is probably too strong a word. It is really a series of interwoven monologues, taking a perspective on different events that reveal themselves by the end to be connected. That is about as much as I can tell you without spoiling your potential enjoyment.
Although the play may refuse to give up all its secrets without a struggle, the message the writer wishes to convey could not be plainer. In fact, its meaning fairly bludgeons you over the head with statements about “kilometres of food grown for guns” and “GM field corn grown for weapons”.
This makes the choice of such an eccentric, disorientatingly cryptic form to carry such a simple opinion an odd one. There are, perhaps, more subtle and less opaque ways of exploring the individual’s relationship with big business and other modern folk-devils than this.
Its polemical stance notwithstanding, the creation of the universe in which these characters live is startlingly vivid and well-handled. The performances are, to a man, assured and convincing. The design and the direction combine to great effect to create a claustrophobic universe within the theatre that is alienating, frightening and uncomfortable. Whether or not your idea of a good evening out is to be made uncomfortable, however, is a choice you will need to make for yourself.