DART is a book-length poem by Alice Oswald, which is based on three years worth of recorded conversations with people who live and work on the River Dart. The result is a work that takes on the multitudinous voice and turbulent power of the river itself. This week, Grace Linden and Alice Troy-Donovan bring their stage adaptation to the BT.
The play begins with a rush of music, the most defining feature of which is the steadily rising volume. It ends with a crescendo that’s almost frightening, and the audience is then eased into the medley of different river-characters. The cast – Rosemary Brook-Hart, Felix Grainger, Samuel Dunnett, Molly Nickson, Eleonora Rossi, Sofia Blanchard and Toby Clyde – all play multiple roles throughout, from water nymph to naturalist.
The characters stand out memorably in their attempts to live in harmony with the river. The water abstractor attempts to scientifically quantify the elements of the water, while the two fishermen brothers, allergic to fish, struggle to make a living. The swimmers and canoers use the river for entertainment, while the boat-builder and his wife see it as a means of escape. All the roles are played convincingly and engagingly, although I think there’s always room for tighter choreography – particularly in the canoeing scene and for the voices in unison. However, the diversity of distinct characters populating these riverbanks gives a necessary thread of human interest to the play, while still managing to evoke a sense of the changing river.
But it’s the sounds and the voices, which are really crucial to the enjoyment of this play, and they are where the adaptation has had the greatest triumph. At times it was difficult to make out the words spoken both by actors and recordings, but other than that the vocal element of the play was accomplished excellently. Oswald’s poem was spoken softly, then shouted; slowed, and sped up. The cast portrayed their ambitions and insecurities through varying the rhythm of the lines, and eventually I forgot I was listening to a poem. The eerie soundtrack also helps to immerse the audience in the performance, and the musicality is an element that lends great atmosphere to the show.
The most powerful scenes in DART were of drowning and near-drowning. The stage adaptation really came into its own here, with a canoeist’s underwater struggles augmented by an actor seductively playing the river, attempting to lure him to the depths. In fact, the terrifying power of the river is what made the play work. The refrains of “who is that?” remind that we can never really own the ever-changing entity, and although a myriad of interesting voices wade through its waters and dot the banks, we can never forget the glowing lamp in the set’s background, ever present as the spirit of the river.
DART is a fantastic experimental achievement, with set, lighting, cast and sound combining to create a truly original theatre experience.
Image// Grace Linden