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Wildly ambitious dystopian fantasy from Philip Ridley
A lot of Philip Ridley’s recent work has been short one- or two-handers – twisted parables on modern life that have the rhythm of trampled fairytales. But ‘Karagula’ is on another scale. It’s a dystopic sci-fi epic with the scope of one of those massive ’80s fantasy novels you could use as a doorstop.
Two teenage lovers kiss under twin moons, as one prepares to be ritually shot once he’s crowned Prom King; a child is threatened by rebels who make her kiss a hammer; there’s telepathy; feral forest children worshipping a snow globe; and a sterile society in which emotions are outlawed.
The word ‘ambition’ hovers over everything to do with this production, which is staged in a former ambulance depot near Tottenham Hale. Ridley’s tale begins in pieces, seemingly disconnected snapshots, which begin to knit together, dislocated in time but rippling into each other.
Across three hours, this play throws everything at us. It’s a sprawling allegory, in part, for the destructive absurdity of war and a none-too-subtle swing at religion. At its heart is the ’60s-styled town of Mareka – isolationist and fuelled by fanaticism. There’s jukeboxes, pom-poms and murder, set down in ‘ancient texts’ about a young man shot in a car.
Rearrange the letters of the town’s name and it’s not hard to see what’s going on here. In fact, by the interval, it’s disappointing to think that everything we’ve seen is just going to funnel into near-future satire. But then it goes properly bonkers, zooming into ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’ territory, with a pit-stop in ‘Fahrenheit 451’.
Director Max Barton uses the big space well, keeping the multiple scene changes quick, while the diverse cast – often tripling up on roles – give it real welly. But it’s a mess of a play, overstuffed with ideas. The hardcore fantasy elements sit uneasily with the darker humour, with the tinselly look of old-school TV sci-fi.
But if its sprawling terrain really needs a Hollywood-sized budget, ‘Karagula’ fails well. It has many faults, but it’s hard not to applaud when over-ambition is one of them. This is a play that lunges at massive themes (like all the best sci-fi) and it’s unlike anything else in London at the moment.