Review: Leviathan, Sherman Theatre

From its humble beginnings in 2004, Òran Mór’s a Play, a Pie & a Pint series has enjoyed massive success the world over, and it’s easy to see why. Featuring at domestic festivals such as Edinburgh and Brighton, and as far afield as Tasmania and Alaska, the Glasgow-born combination of the culinary and the cultural has piqued the interest of international audiences, including – on the evening of March 24th – attendees of Cardiff’s Sherman theatre.

The Play of the evening was to be Matthew Trevannion’s Leviathan; co-produced by Òran Mór and Sherman theatre, Leviathan is a play of inner demons and personal struggle through the lives of three generations of strong Welsh women. The performance took place in Sherman’s Studio, a slightly smaller but beautifully intimate performance space that is ideal for the gritty introspection that that the audience was to be subjected to over the course of the evening. As if to complement the intimacy of the performance space, the cast of Leviathan is comprised solely of three women, each a representee of a generation of Welsh women; daughter (Hannah, played by Gwawr Loader), mother (Karen, played by Claire Cage) and grandmother (Mavis, played by Siw Hughes).

The Cast of Leviathan Image Credit: Sherman Cymru

From beginning to end there is a prevailing minimalism to the production of this play. The plot opens and closes in the back garden of a council house on a blazing summer’s day with no scene changes; there are no tricks of lighting (aside from the occasional colour wash) and every prop onstage serves a dramatic purpose. With a cast of three there is no room for ‘filler’ characters and at a running time of 50 mins, no time for wasted lines. Each and every component of this production serves an inextricably essential purpose, encouraging rapt attention from the audience who are almost afraid to blink for fear of missing a key moment.

The play revolves – both figuratively and literally – around the catatonic Karen and the attempts of the Hannah and Mavis to stir her from her stupor. With blackened humour and searing honesty the audience is taken through each nook and cranny of the inter-generational bonds between grandmother and grand-daughter, punctuated by insights into the mother’s suffering through feverish monologues. The entirety of Claire’s spoken performance as Karen is directed exclusively at the audience, and with such ferocity and pained emotion a viewer cannot help but feel compelled to react. The frequent rupture of the fourth wall permitted audible reactions to the performers, removing the normally strict bonds of silent voyeurism in many performances. Giggles and outright laughter erupted from audiences at times with an occasionally audible gasp accompanying the moments of blackest humour.

Perhaps the most commendable aspect of the entire performance was the familial bond that seemed so apparent between each performer. An actor attempting to falsify familiarity or familial bond can frequently result in an embarrassingly stilted performance, with their overcompensation becoming obvious to the point of laughability. The presentation of family in Leviathan however was so strong, complete and organic that it had the opposite effect; the trials of these three women stirred within the audience feelings of familial grief, love, loss and even guilt. At times when a blackout washed over the stage, the audience was left reeling from what felt almost like a physical blow.

Image Credit: Sherman Cymru

As mentioned previously, the performance itself was regrettably brief. At just under an hour, Leviathan simultaneously left the viewer emotionally exhausted and masochistically eager for more. The emptying studio buzzed with people recounting similar experiences and stories from within their own families. Light-hearted satire on Valleys-folk and traveller culture masked a fiercely emotional undertone that tugged and pulled at the audience’s emotions with reckless abandon. Leviathan lived up to its mythological namesake: a piercingly heartfelt glimpse into one woman’s struggle with depression and psychosis, and her family’s struggle to cope as their own lives split at the seams.