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First Love is the Revolution

by on 7 March 2020

Raw Bonds

First Love is the Revolution

by Rita Kalnejais

The Questors at the Questors Studio, Ealing until 14th March

Review by Nick Swyft

Basil Brush meets Shakespeare, in this imaginative retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story like no other.

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The play opens with a brother and sister holding up a leaf covered window and looking through it. The girl shrieks randomly, and at first the audience might be forgiven for thinking that the play is about mental health. It is not, although the synopsis suggests that this could be a fantasy that the main character, Basti (Zac Karaman) uses to shield himself from the trauma of his mother’s absence. Like The Life of Pi, you can choose which story to believe.

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It turns out that the brother Thoreau, played by Jason Welch, and sister Gustina (Gusti), played by Lucy Palfreeman, are foxes, and the window is the entrance to their den.

The play portrays the discomfort and violence of life in the wild very effectively, starting with the mother Cochineal, played by Maya Markelle capturing a mole, Gregor, played by Iain Reid. The youngest daughter Rdeca, played by Fionna Gough, is introduced to Gregor. He is to be her first kill. She must, after all, learn to hunt like the rest of her family. Gusti shows her what to do, and Rdeca attacks him, but doesn’t kill him outright. She is ordered to bury his corpse and there is a lovely piece of comedy in which Gregor ends up digging his own grave. Being a mole he just wants to do a proper job.

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The scene then switches to show us another family, this time human. Basti played by Zac Karaman lives with his dad Simon played by Mike Hdjipateras. He is being bullied at school, because of his state of mind. Basti is focussing his mind on building traps for foxes.

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He meets Rdeca when she is caught in one of his traps. We are not told how, but the two of them can talk to each other, and an unlikely relationship develops. Rdeca teaches Basti how she lives, and Basti treats her fleas.

Like all good plays, the comedy is counterpointed by moments of high drama and emotional tension. There is, for example, something uniquely distressing about the inhuman way the foxes cry when tragedy strikes.

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The production is refreshingly sparse, although having the actors eating cereal saying ‘crunch crunch crunch’, seems unnecessary; we know what they’re doing. Many of the actors play multiple parts. Lucy Palfreeman, who plays Gusti, also plays Basti’s upstairs neighbour Gemma whom dad, Simon, is hitting on. She is also delightfully sensual as the farm cat Smulan, who teases the farm dog Rovis, also played by her ‘fox brother’ Jason Welch. The farm chickens may be recognised as Cochineal the fox mother (Maya Markelle) and Simon, Basti’s dad (Mike Hadjipateras). One might read something into this, perhaps?

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Actually one could read a lot into this play. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet highlighted the tragedy of star-crossed lovers in inter-family strife, and there have been many productions that have applied this to race and sexuality. To apply it to species might seem a step too far. Society is maybe not ready to accept bestiality, but it’s not likely that many audience members will go away disgusted. That is the genius of the playwright Rita Kalnejais, the actors and the production team.

Nick Swyft
March 2020

Photography by Robert Vass and Evelina Plonyte

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