I really loved watching The Duke, which is presented by Hoipolloi, a theatre company co-founded by Shôn Dale-Jones, who is also the director, writer, producer, and performer in this version of The Duke. The play starts off inconspicuously, by playing with what makes the start of a theatre production and what the space of the theatre means. This is what metatheatre is — a self-consciousness about the form of a play, which is always imagined as a performance even when it is written down. It is extremely enjoyable when executed well, and The Duke fulfils just that.
I feel that the production also forces us to do a double take on what we think a play needs to have, while pushing certain elements that only come with being in a theatre. Because Dale-Jones delivers the performance in quite a bare set, it appears to be deceptively simple. With just one performer, one table, and a self-run audio system, The Duke strips theatre back down to the idea of a story, of storytelling, and of practising the imagination. There’s no need for the performer to get out of the chair and act overtly; all of the magic of Dale-Jones’s acting is subtle — with a change of tone, an audio track cued, an eyebrow lifted, glittering eyes and a smile right through every one of us, he turns the audience into complicit actors in the narrative.
When I look back and consider what his story is about, which is of the moment when matches struck unexpectedly in the meeting between direct personal and familial experience and the global refugee crisis, I realise how powerful the presentation of the play is. Here is the message of empathy coming across to all of us, shared between the performer, his gaze, and the audience and their gaze, imagining and connecting personal to global. We are reminded, in the protagonist’s experience, of all our experiences scrolling past, letting slide, letting pass the news about crises like the ones that stop the protagonist in his tracks.
We are also reminded of the idea of investments and what we choose to invest in, from Dale-Jones’s repetition of the word. In the script, these are the investment of the father into the Royal Worcester porcelain figure of the Duke of Wellington on horseback, the investment of the film producer into a film script, and the investment of a refugee into a spot on a boat that matters to their life. Dale-Jones has here chosen to invest in people, in all of us, by offering his time as the performer, and in the people in the refugee crisis for whom we are encouraged to stop and think about too. (It is befitting that the term “hoi polloi,” the name of the theatre company, means “the many” or “the people” in ancient Greek.) Even if just for one day, one hour, The Duke aspires to create a precious moment of generosity and empathy between the audience and the refugees.
These two words, “refugee crisis,” are not poetic and not pretty. Every time it is mentioned in the play, I believe that it takes us all out of the fantasy of the theatre, a space which can lead us to believe that the narrative is not real. Instead, as written into the script itself, we are forced to confront how, “[a]s Luis Buñuel says, “fantasy and reality are equally personal and equally felt and so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance””. It is powerful that Dale-Jones has then used this confusion, in this confusing theatre space, to challenge how we make visible or invisible this crisis in the context of all our own lives.
I realise that The Duke is a wonderful play but it is not because it is good, but because it is difficult. I am very, very glad I caught it at IYAF this weekend.
Vanessa is a final year student at the National University of Singapore, and as part of a summer holiday to the United Kingdom, she is helping out in IYAF’s Content and Marketing team. Having an aspiration to work in the arts, and in particular with and for children and young people, Vanessa is taking this time to build on her personal experiences in the arts from Singapore with the experiences she will gather here in London.