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Theatre Review: Square Rounds

Megan Roberts discovers that magical poetry and chemical warfare prove truth is stranger than fiction

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At the heart of the old Finborough Theatre, an interesting experiment is taking place. From the man who bought you limp dick toting satyrs in his translation of The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus and, foul mouthed, grave defiling, skinheads in his critically acclaimed poem V; Square Rounds, by Tony Harrison remains his most "out there" work to date. Like a history-cum-chemistry lesson on crack cocaine, this verse drama was heralded a spectacular theatrical flop during its first and only UK performance in 1999. Now, 100 years from the ending of the Great War, Mad Haddock theatre company gather us round to look the Gorgon square in the eye, once again.

An immense condensing of history and geography, the play illustrates the moral ambiguity of scientific innovation - from waring dynastic china, to the battle of Ypres. Our journey begins with a group of Munitionettes, assembling armaments. But, in a wonderfully meta turn of events, the all-female cast transform the factory floor into a theatrical space. And, with the aid of a magical port-a-loo, (yes, you heard me right) transform into a series of famous scientists, with a dramatic, thunderous flush.

If the thought of revisiting schoolroom chemistry, in verse and song no less, seems a little heavy for you - fear not; it is within the realm of the lab-turned-music hall that the Company most excels. Miraculous colour changing silks, and disappearing candles, elegantly transform chemical syntheses into a magic act; whilst the caricatures strike a balance between eccentric humour and dark witticism. The accumulation of clutter, confetti, and low budget trickery give the play more credibility than it ever had at the National. This is a play that belongs in the back rooms of vaudeville and the fringes of theatre. So, in the best possible way, the company successfully puts the amateur back into dramatics, even achieving profundity at times.

Eva Feiler as Justus Von Liebig. Photo Credit: SR Taylor Photography

The fall of our scientific anti-heroes encompass the best poetry of the evening. The story of Fritz Haber is a compelling example of racial politics at play in the science of war. A German-Jewish chemist, Haber hoped releasing a deadly poison gas would bring Germany a swift victory, despite the horrendous cost to human life. Yet, glimpsing beyond his death, Haber foresees the consequences of his invention: its use on his own people, during the Holocaust. Phillipa Quinn, as Haber, delivers a compelling performance as the charismatic outsider. And, in a moment of poignant metaphysical drama, holds the mirror up to nature among the 'shattered trees' of Ypres.

Meanwhile, Sir Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, tries and fails to square the rounds of technological advancement as moral imperative. In an act of atonement Maxim engineers the first inhaler, his 'Pipe of Peace', to ease the suffering of munitions workers. However, in the most arresting moment of the play, a line of shell shocked soldiers, backlit by war footage, travel behind the empty words of this warmonger.

However, intermittently it seemed director Jimmy Walter's just could not fit this square script into a well-rounded play. Under its magical facade, the factual density and didactic tone, expose the work for what it is: a series of lectures offered as theatre. At times the play convincingly rests on its non-conformism; Harrison has always found space as an anarchist within the establishment. But, at other times this representative birth of the modern age could not feel further from the modern audience; strange for a poet who so deftly carried the human spirit in his earthy Greek dramas. Fortunately, the company does not take itself too seriously: pointing out, and laughing at its own inconsistencies.

Stepping out of the old Finborough theatre, you can't help but feel changed by the magic and mayhem inside. Comic, thought provoking, and anything but conventional; this pantomime polemic is sure to follow you on your London commute, like the sound of distant explosions.


Square Rounds is currently running at the Finborough Theatre until September 29th. This is the first UK production in nearly 30 years. Tickets can be bought here:

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