Three Parallel Places is an ambitious new piece of writing by Hannah Chilve-Vaughan which, through its winning central performance, manages to capture the spirit of the itinerant classical figures by which it was inspired.
The premise of the play is that three parallel places – Earth, Egalitaria and Autocratia – exist, and each act of the play occurs in a different realm. The audience encounters these places with the main character, Ambrosia, a fey girl who lives on Earth in a vaguely pre-industrial society, with her lover George, his twin brothers, Pars and Antipars, and their grandmother. She, however, yearns for excitement outside of her humdrum life, which she finds in the frequent storms, something to which George objects. One such stormy encounter leads to the death of Ambrosia and George, who then move into the afterlife, to somewhere called Egalitarian.
Egalitaria is a place of equality, where everyone is ‘perpetually happy in the absence of pain’, according to the omniscient, omnipresent figure Ambrosia meets. Although there is initial discord between her and George, for pulling him away from his family, he soon settles into peaceful existence, whereas Ambrosia’s restless spirit wants to experience the contrasts in life. The only way to leave Egalitaria is to move onwards to Autocratia, a land of numerous dictatorial realms. This she does, visiting the realm of Alpha, a narcissist who lives in a house full of mirrors, and subsequently that of Omega, a brutish tyrant.
The play, in creating these different places, raises questions about the nature of happiness. In particular, Egalitaria seems to function as the backdrop for some grand philosophical discourse, with a scene spent on the variations between art and life, which makes Egalitaria, as a setting, less visceral than those of Earth and Autocratia. The scenes on Earth move slowly, establishing the characters in the family, the most effective scenes focusing on the relationship between Ambrosia and George, those between Pars and Antipars making the audience’s journey with Ambrosia slightly disjointed, and contributing to the lengthy start. Once the characters reach Autocratia, the pace quickens, and contributes to some of the best scenes in the play. Ambrosia’s encounter with Watch, where they enter the house of mirrors, is genuinely funny, although apparently Autocratia is a parallel place where the film Taxi Driver – and its famous line, ‘You talkin’ to me?’ – also exist. The characters of Alpha and Omega are grotesque and distinctly unappealing, encompassing the extremes of conceit, vanity and ugliness. The scenes in Autocratia suffer from some unevenness in tone, going from the darkly funny to the almost distressing, and the play as a whole features two instances of assault, which may make viewers uncomfortable.
The scenery and costumes are instrumental in the world-building, and are highly effective. On earth, the production features a fake grass floor and a flowers hanging from the roof, which create eerie effects when coupled with interesting lighting choices. The characters on Earth wear varying shades of white or cream, lending them an innocent, or naïve, air, whereas those in Autocratia favour bold colours and an excess of gold. Ambrosia, who wears a gauzy white dress in the first two acts, appears in black in Autocratia, her hair covered in gold, showing the difference – and indeed the values – of the realms.
The play, however, works because of its appealing central performance. The character of Ambrosia is initially childlike and petulant, but through her experiences gains emotional depth. The sense of Ambrosia’s restlessness is constant, and her joy in experiencing the new aspects of different realms palpable. The character leads us through the ambitious constructions of different places, and in doing so grounds them. Three Parallel Places is really the account of one girl’s journey through difficult encounters and family entanglements, and is at its best when the emotional and personal, rather than the philosophical, are at the fore.
Three Parallel Places is running in the Michael Pilch Studio 18th-21st of October.