F.A.B. THEATRE: THE DROWNED WORLD
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
Tue 20-Sat 24 Sept
words: AMELIA FORSBROOK image: IRENE SUCHOCKI
In Noughts and Crosses, Malorie Blackman gave us an imaginative dystopia split on the basis of ethnicity. The society within her series was a cleverly simplistic reversal of image-based racial power structures, a society where black citizens held power over a white minority. In Gary Owen’s The Drowned World we see another simplistic reversal of power employed to a similarly thought-provoking effect.
In this futuristic urban fable, a world is split into the simplistic binary opposition of the beautiful and the ugly. Beautiful lovers Tara and Julian used to possess the high status of the attractive, a wealth of aesthetic capital. Now they are fugitives, running away from law enforcers. What was once the visual ideal is now a threat to others and attractiveness becomes an unwittingly employed weapon. Knowing that becoming invisible is the only way they can disarm their visual power, Tara and Julian seek a place to hide.
The story may seem far-fetched, but at the heart of it is a representation of a very plausible global paranoid. Like in all good dystopian fiction, there is an ever-pressing concern with nuclear fallout. Once was once viewed as a desirable radiance is now believed to bear hazardous side-effects and public concern is high.
Director Steve Fisher articulates the appeal of Owen’s writing, praising the Welsh author for his ability to ‘address big themes and issues whilst at the same time writing in an intimate and highly personal style.’ And in the richly metaphorical nature of this play’s subject it is easy to see how The Drowned World generates this balance of intelligence and personality as it interrogates the value we place on image.
Of course, the mug shots and belittling discourse associated with the rioters in recent news can only add to any reading of this production. Now, Owen’s ‘fatally radiant creatures’ are not only a reminder of our intrinsic envy and our paranoid surrounding radio-activity. As they are contrasted against the ‘clumsy and mean-spirited and graceless and cowardly and shapeless and flabby and foul’, we see a bitter articulation of society’s divisions, the rift between the haves and the have-nots and the equally destructive partition between how these polarised groups are portrayed.
But this is not a play in favour of the beautiful. Nor is it a work that attributes a sense of creative privilege onto real life’s Quasimodos, Gorgons and Betty Suarezs. Rather, The Drowned World is a nuanced, figurative reminder of the dangers of categorisation and prejudice.