Review of ‘The Gretchen Question’: “Natural art”

Till the end of this week, Deptford’s Master Shipwright hosts this new play providing answers and raising questions about the ethics concerning the ecosystems – but not in the way you may expect. Guillermo Názara tells us his opinions about the Fuel Theatre’s latest production: a triple-framed story wovened by a reality you may have never realised.

Say the words ‘enviromentalism’ or ‘climate change’ to somebody and watch their reaction. Sounds like a TikTok challenge (please, don’t go down that road…), but the Earth’s fate is, like everything in politics nowadays, a topic that has polarized almost the entire population to the point of each side wanting to bitch-slap one another. Deniers and catastrophers duel in an endless battle where each band endeavours to shout louder, unavoidably leading to the prompt conclusion that any material regarding this matter is, by all means, either dull or preachy at its best. This was no exception.

When I received the press release for The Gretchen Question, my instant reaction was paralyzing hesitation: “Do I really want to come see a play that whines about pollution that will bombard me with accusations of what a terrible person I am for not laughing biodegradably? No, thanks”. However, I took the gamble and I decided to accept the invitation – after all, it’s also a critic’s job to feast on what he despises so he has an excuse to pour out his born-with bile. That, and the venue too – a repurposed old shipbuilding warehouse (its name makes it easy to guess it) seemed rather cool to visit. I took my seat and let myself get immersed in the show. Five minutes after it started, I wasn’t pleased – I was in fact grateful I had come, for I already knew I was witnessing something brilliant.

Centered around the stories of three different women (one from the 18th century, the other two, contemporary), The Gretchen Question is a true quest for knowledge and ultimate truth. What may look like progress could actually be a curse sending us back to the Dark Ages. What might look green, might as well be mere masks for other insidious interests. What’s moral? What’s right? And above all, is it worth it? Many secrets are to be revealed, or maybe re-wrapped , in this rich and often fast-paced dramedy featuring excellent writing and direction and a impressively dragging appeal to its themes – like it or not, it’s difficult not to be captivated by both its intetwining plots and enganging display of scientific fun facts. No matter how many data you’re being showered in, you keep asking for more.

Performed at open-air stage by the very shores of the Thames’s southbank, the beauty of London’s garish skyline serves as a striking enhancement to a deceivngly simple set design. Using a double-leved deck (the highest one covered in white sand -in appearance-), the dynamism of its scene provides the production with uptempo film-editing rythm while keeping its aesthetic theatricality. With several surprises and effects under the sleeve (my lips and pen), this production makes the play jump out from the realm of words to become a momentary celebration of staggering visuality. Its showcase of illusions (with their methods always revealed before the spectators’ eyes) reinforces the idea of how well its creatives understand the media – for only in the theatre you can be told you’re being lied to in such an outrageous manner, and still you’ll probably choose to believe it.

The praise for its makers should be shared almost entirely by the cast too. On the whole, flawless, the obvious standout in the lead cast is Yohanna Ephrem, playing the obnoxious yet charming in her way YouTuber Maisie, a role that’s allowed her to demonstrate her undeniable comedy bone but also her ability to develop a character an audience can sympathize with. At the same time, Alex Mugnaioni excels as aristocratic Joseph Banks, exuding charisma and presence and masterfully unveiling his persona’s real face over the course of the evening (pretty or ugly, I’ll leave that for you to discover). In addition, a live music duo serves as the play’s soundtrack. Led by Max Barton on the counterbass, violin and guitar (that should already speak for itself), the team, though small, manages to construct a full atmosphere thanks to clever instrumentation and wisely chosen melodies and chord progressions.

Art can’t and will never be science, for there’s no certainty of what can trigger our feelings and intoxicate the mind. However, The Gretchen Question manages to prove that assumption wrong by doing the math and establishing itself as true quality theatre. It’s funny, it’s gripping, it’s beautiful, it’s nasty… It’s a show with all the capital letters. It may be deemed as alternative theatre, but there’s not much of an alternative about this one – you simply must go watch it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

The Gretchen Question plays until 2 October at the Master Shipwright. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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