Though many theatre doors across the country have closed, the virtual doors of the arts have remained open. And, with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe sadly announcing its cancellation for this coming August, theatre production companies have had to adapt to online platforms also. One such company is Big Mind Theatre which, on three consecutive nights, produced The Garden Party, a Zoom-based contemporary twist on Vaclav Havel’s original 1960s play.
Images of a quaint summer gathering were conjured in my mind as I joined the Zoom call, muted my audio and turned off my camera. I imagined jugs of Pimm’s, candles flickering in a hazy summer sky and mutters of light conversation. How wrong I was. For this garden party was no walk in the park.
Opening in the home of the Pludek family, we are introduced to Hugo, one of the two sons, playing chess while his parents arrange a meeting with his father’s childhood friend at an online office party. From here, Hugo continues his cunning game, rising up the bureaucratic ladder of the Liquidation Office and signing off each bizarre encounter with a sly “Check”.
An unnerving sense of paranoia grows as the play progresses. The characters speak in a meaningless, circular dialogue which Hugo is quick to understand. He adopts and adapts their illogical clichés and nonsensical ideas until he returns home completely unrecognisable to his parents. Each scene is well-managed to create feelings of dread and panic as new bouts of “conversation” occur.
The dense language reveals the comedy in moving both home and work life online; navigating a virtual family conversation as well as the arbitrary office politics and fear of saying the wrong thing to a superior. It is difficult to imagine this play performed on a physical stage when it felt so naturally staged on Zoom. The set-up has a few inevitable technical difficulties, but these are managed well considering the actors have to perform and orchestrate the call simultaneously. Supplementing the performance are token screen shares and a couple of humorous virtual backgrounds which aid the narrative.
Spanning the length of two hours, however, the play feels like a lifetime. I admit that I longed for the interval which eventually came, providing some light relief from the perpetual nonsense of the dialogue. The second half is even more absurd than the first, offering brilliant tongue twisters and a second wave of turmoil ridden by both the characters and audience.
Hugo reaches a tactical climax, sitting at the top of the Liquidation Office, signing off for the last time in a crescendo of meaningless drivel. The final parts of the performance are, however, muddled and seemingly out of focus. Despite this, the play features strong performances from the outset, demonstrating superb angst and comical corruption. Overall, it is a broadcast that has done well in embracing its contemporary transition online.
Featured illustration credit: Caitlin Allen