By Mark Bolsover
Eschewing abstract speculation on immigration to focus on the intensely lived, day-to-day existence of the émigré, Vanner Collective present ‘Ashes Afar’, an at times disturbing, complex, and deeply intelligent piece of experimental theatre.
Through a series of fragments or vignettes, which seem, at least initially, to jump in time between the sweet, nervous beginning, and the tense and angry ending of their relationship, ‘Ashes Afar’ in fact traces the far more complex structure of the game played between Irish Aine and Mihail from Romania. Following Aine’s suffering a loss of memory, the two attempt to reconstruct the history of their relationship, and Aine’s sense of self.
At its core, ‘Ashes Afar’ is an examination of what underpins a sense of self, and whether a sense of self could ever be reconstituted through the act of narrating a personal history, when unattached to a broader, geographical, historical, and cultural context, or, perhaps rather,a sense of ‘home’.
Aine’s and Mihail’s game breaks with the naturalism that the show initially appears to establish, building instead on an uncertain and fractured playing on or with time and memory, cleverly rooted in the concrete space of the small, miserable flat the two share (evoked by the simple and effective rotation of a gawdy armchair in the otherwise empty set).
Replaying, repeating, and revising moments from the history of their relationship, the show questions to what extent we are the creations of the choices we make, how free these choices are, and whether, granted the opportunity presented by being shorn of our memories, we could ever make the same choices again. Faced with the inevitability of gaps or lacunae in experience, knowledge, memory, and narration; of suspicions, suppositions, evasions, and omissions (driven by the impossibility of ever having access to the full truth, and by an unwillingness to face the small quantum of truth available, preferring our own constructed accounts of events, changing meanings and stakes), the show is ultimately concerned with the impossibility of this attempt at reconstruction or for reinvention.
Crissy O’Donovan gives a brilliant, smart, and acerbic performance as Aine. Liviu Romanescu is charming, and equally smart as the brow-beaten and somewhat desperate Mihail. The two have great energy and chemistry from the outset, and spar well off each other with great comic timing in their tense, awkward, and often smartly and sharply humourous exchanges. They add great and necessary emotional depth and engagement to the complex material.
Disconcertingly, though finally necessarily unresolved, ‘Ashes Afar’ is an intelligent and fraught examination of the possibilities and impossibility of the notion of ‘home’. …