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‘Freeman’, produced by Strictly Arts, explores the true stories of six people who fought a losing battle against their race, culture and mental health.  

Location: The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Date: Tuesday 10th October 2017, Time: 8pm

Walking through the entrance of The Rep on Tuesday happened to be my first experience of theatre in the city. As a matter of fact, I had attended a free concert by the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as part of the ‘Weekender’ to end Freshers’ Week. With this as an exception, there was nothing to compare to this production by Strictly Arts; not that there won’t be by the end of this semester.

Having done some background reading into the play’s synopsis, I expected artistic decisions to include multimedia projections, physical sequences and direct communication with the audience. Indeed, these were some of the reasons that this piece can be classified as postmodern. By that I mean a multiplicity of truths being conveyed on account of the directors and producers who embed the messages, in this case regarding the sanity of convicted criminals.

What made Freeman’s intentions especially potent is the decision to base the narrative on true stories of deceased victims, whether in the past year or century-and-a-half. The eponymous character, William Freeman, portrayed by Strictly Arts’ artistic director Corey Campbell, has his lawyer make the inaugural claim that his insanity justifies his committal of murder. The unpredictable changing of scenes allowed the piece to travel from the 1800s through to the present day, where each of the character’s replayed the hardship and injustice faced prior to death. So much so, that those who weren’t the subject of the scene used multi-role to inform each scene’s time and place.

Naturally, an audience member may have struggled to keep up with the flux of historical context the theatre company utilised to shape their presentation of mental health victims. However, swift progressions to the lives of real people affected within the last decade, even year, made the topic more pertinent for spectators and reinforced it as a recurring issue that hasn’t and doesn’t seem likely to change. Some course mates of mine commented that they would have struggled to engage with the performance had the time period not taken a dramatic shift. Hence it is becoming more commonplace for theatre producers and playwrights to make their work culturally relevant to the time of writing. This is so audiences can actively, rather than passively, retain the underlying messages in performance to change society for the better.

The abstract style of performance was immediately established with a physical sequence which culminated in what many spectators would interpret as the characters’ deaths. This non-linear narrative structure irritated some of my peers, but in the company’s defence, a wise decision was made in having each performer physically interact with one another through a variety of topography, muscular tension and spatial proximities. This physicalisation was also manifested with props. A lightweight headdress in the form of a horse’s head and neck was worn by one actor, whilst several others supported Freeman as the legs. This imaginative choice proved the actors could depend on their own bodies rather than using inanimate pieces of set.

Another aspect which cemented unity between the ensemble was acapella song. This was particularly apt for the end of David Oluwale’s (a Nigerian man who suffered severe racial abuse upon immigrating to the UK; played by Marcel White) episode, which gave a calming, gospel sound. The actress who portrayed Sarah Reed, the most recent character who committed suicide as a consequence of her imprisonment and depression, sung acapella solo to mourn the loss of her baby. Using nothing more than bundles of cloth and a wailing sound effect for this signified a notable absence of life quality and purpose.

Arguably, the actors were most versatile in their use of accent. Despite the broad use of multirole, each performer had their own identifiable character. Pip Barclay, who played Scottish political activist Daniel M’naghton, generated considerable humour in his use of language. A memorable moment was his reply to Sandra Bland’s plea against female disenfranchisement: “Don’t be ridiculous woman.” His part also included a clear use of intertextuality in the recorded sound of ‘The Pink Panther’ theme. A follow spotlight with hand shadows to enact his attempted assassination of the Tory politician, Robert Peel, was perhaps a political comment from the left that urged for freedom of speech and equal representation among the masses. This in itself linked to a piece of legislation named after him called The M’naghton rules: to excuse alleged criminals on the grounds of insanity. From the perspective of a woman, an abstraction that intrigued me was the use of sound and light to enact both a police officer’s taser and building frustration of the victim. Indeed, there was an instance here where intermediality was used for a vlog recording by Sandra Bland (Kimisha Lewis), who spoke out of sync with the projection. Nonetheless, the use of a green floodlight each time the ‘taser’ sounded demonstrated the polysemic nature of signs to convey character emotions.

If the piece can be considered as episodic in its structural style, then the prevailing message that “nothing has changed” (in regard to, as stated in the programme: ‘people of colour, the criminal justice system and mental health’) was well emphasised by the company. There is a scene which follows a psychiatrist who lectures the other actors, all of whom play a black character. He instils in them the belief that African Americans of the day (perhaps during the slave trade) deserve to be whipped whilst living lives of extreme poverty. This culminates in a ritualistic dance and chant; the fact that all of them are part of an ethnic minority makes these racist remarks acceptable for an audience of today. The following scene moves forward to approximately 2005. Its scenography, lighting and sound are transformed. Striking colours were directed by moving ‘rogue’ lights towards the stage whilst the actors head-banged to conventional ‘techno’ club music. This is followed by a prolonged moment of Michael Bailey (played by Kieron Amos) being found in possession of drugs, to give the audience far more cultural relevance than the previous scene. When supposedly in his prison cell, the repetition of turning hand torches on and off could have been developed with more sophisticated stage lighting from different angles. Strictly Arts create performance to explore differences in ‘race[s], creed[s] and culture[s]’, but it is clear that all of the main characters shared a belief in the power of God. Invocations such as The Lord’s Prayer and “I don’t deserve to be here [in prison] God” perhaps questioned the terrible, underserved fates every person went on to suffer.

As far as the audience were concerned, the intimacy between the stage and auditorium drew criticism from some fellow members. Some compared it to an accomplished “A-Level piece”. By all means, the proximity between the actors and audience couldn’t have been much closer and the socio-political context was at the piece’s forefront. Yet I would argue that it made the issues surrounding mental health victims more palpable. But I cannot deny that the production of Freeman was both mature and thought-provoking, whilst it embraced the differences in racial ‘backgrounds’.