Peter Rusafov’s However Belligerent the Cactus, running at the Corpus Playroom until Saturday, distinguishes itself as a startlingly original piece. Promising to tell a complex love story, undercut by a “power imbalance” which leaves its young protagonist feeling “dismissed” by his older lover of him, I was expecting to be fed a classic ‘daddy issues’ cliché. The play, however, offers so much more: it’s a complex insight into the liminality of young adulthood and the plasticity of a performative world.
Trapped in a “limbo” between the zealous idealism of youth and the pragmatic cynicism of maturity, Artem, the play’s 19-year-old lead, is both precocious and naïve. This complex character benefits from the acting of Jenny Cyffin-Jones, who cleanly balances Artem’s maturity against his boyish spirit. On stage for near-enough the entire performance, Cyffin-Jones’ energy never falters. Perhaps she owes thanks, in part, to her co-cast de ella, who entered the stage with the same enthusiasm.
“It is in the performance of John and Artem’s relationship that the production particularly shines”
John (Clara Springman), is electrically charismatic. It is not hard to understand how Artem falls for this literature-obsessed aesthetic. With no long-term plan other than to pursue his passion for writing, John speaks to the youthful idealism left within Artem. It is in the performance of John and Artem’s relationship that the production particularly shines. Their evolving intimacy is delicately written, their conversations flow naturally, the stage’s lighting reacts deftly as they become increasingly close, and, as they bond over their love of poetry, the duo feel truly connected.
One finds themselves immediately rooting for John and Artem despite the presence of Lockie, Artem’s politician boyfriend. Only one moment between the pair feels stiff—a kiss they share after a moment of (seemingly platonic) dancing. Whilst Springman and Cyffin-Jones navigate this moment to the best of their ability, there seems to be a failure in the script to build from a friendly dance to this climax of intimacy.
“The set is effective in other respects, and certainly ambitious for its Corpus Playroom location”
In the character of Lockie, Artem’s older boyfriend, Sawen Ali possesses the convictions of a real politician: Lockie is prepared to jump through the unnecessary loopholes of bureaucracy to achieve his long-term goals. This confuses Artem who is left feeling “disillusioned by the world around him,” recognizing the difficulties that come with enacting real change. That Artem and Lockie fail to reconcile their world views, and that their failure to understand one another complicates their relationship, is skilfully written by Rusafov. With their explosive fights punctuated by moments of quiet intimacy, their love feels distinctly tumultuous. Ali and Cyffin-Jones bring to life this disjunctive relationship, expertly moving between a shouting battle in one scene and a loving conversation in the next.
The disjunction in Artem and Lockie’s relationship artistically bleeds into Cody Knight’s set design. With Artem’s records and books, signs of his youthful idealism of him, scattered amongst Lockie’s liquor decanters, elegant glassware, and ornaments, their differences are obvious before the characters even enter the stage. The set is effective in other respects, and certainly ambitious for its Corpus Playroom location. With a carpeted floor, wallpaper cast across the walls, a bed, drawers, and a wooden liquor cabinet—the set welcomes the audience into the play’s domestic world. The costuming is equally effective, with Artem’s dungarees connoting his boyish naivety and clashing with Lockie’s adult, business attire.
“It was hard to suspend my disbelief, to truly enter the story, when I felt constantly reminded that I was sat in England”
These costumes, however, are perhaps as close as the play gets to exploring the age-gap between Artem and Lockie. Whilst it is stated that the two are around 20 years apart in age, the play never inspects the consequences of this. The breakdown in Artem and Lockie’s relationship is triggered by their absurd political beliefs and Lockie’s devotion to work; that their age difference may be a force driving them apart is never acknowledged. That Rusafov effectively ignores the implications of this age-gap is disappointing given the potential it offers to explore the prevalence of age-gap relationships within the queer community.
I was also left feeling disoriented by the decision to have all the actors speak in English accents. With a script so entrenched in American politics, so packed-full of distinct Americanisms, the English accents were jarring to say the least. It was hard to suspend my disbelief, to truly enter the story, when I felt constantly reminded that I was sat in England. Perhaps this muddling of accents and location harbors some cryptic message. If this is the case, the director’s intentions went over the audiences’ heads.
In spite of its very minor faults, However Belligerent the Cactus offers many moments of inspired direction. The play’s final moments are particularly strong, offering, as the synopsis promises, a hope that Artem may “carve out a path of his own”. The cast is clearly talented, and the plot is both engaging and thematically timely, representing how it feels to exist on the cusp of adulthood whilst still retaining the naivety of youth.
However Belligerent the Cactus by Peter Rusafov is playing at the Corpus Playroom at 9:30pm from Tuesday 3rd to Saturday 7th of May.
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