Review: Tumulus at Soho Theatre
From the Latin “tumulus” – a mound of earth and stones raised over a grave or graves. We are very helpfully informed what to expect quite soon on in this piece.
It’s hard to know just where this play sits as a piece of very current theatre. It’s unique and quirky and it’s intriguing to see performance art which centres around chemsex. One almost gets the feeling that life is informing art almost as immediately as art is informing life.
We are catapulted straight into the throes of Anthony’s loss. Antony has tragically lost a lover to a drugs overdose but were they really lovers? Or did they just fuck? And was it really an overdose? Anthony is a curator at the British Library, lending the masterful Ciarán Owens the perfect character in which to narrate this hour of comedy noir. Owens wastes no time in locking you in for the run-away train ride.
There are some uncomfortable themes at play in Tumulus. Murder, ranking in with the most definite and irreparable outcome is perhaps not the most unsavoury theme we are invited to explore. There’s something poignant and impossible to ignore about gay life and generations-old dynamics being dissected and aired in the heart of London’s gay Soho. Being “responsible and in control” is both a mantra and a challenge that is flung around and ping-ponged constantly by characters and behaviours which seem the antithesis of responsible and in control. Through whose lens are we establishing what these things mean? Are we at the mercy of our queer siblings or a heteronormative world? Which of the two is more savage?
Ian Hallard and Harry Lister do fantastic service creating countless other characters. It’s mainly a menagerie of gay men, I lost count of how many of these men I recognised from my own life. There were several moments when the writing, direction and acting ceased to exist as separate entities and bloomed as vivid pops of real life.
The writing is excellent. Exquisitely well observed. Christopher Adams presents us with “the noise”. This noise is sewn through the whole piece. It is never really explained exactly what the noise is, that is left for us to decide. We are left asking if we are witnessing these men attempt to process individual and/or community wide mental health issues or internalised shame or trauma. Or is it merely addiction? It’s hard to unpick. Most of these things lie in bed together and often lie in our beds when we are together.
The direction is perfect. It is very clear Matt Steinberg has extensive experience of shaping theatre for a studio space. The blending of some very simple lighting effects with the delicious radio play style sound effects throughout really made this piece stand out for me. This blend of sensory stimulation with expertly pitched delivery from the cast stamped a true uniqueness on the evening.
The only criticism I have is that once or twice I felt cheated of a moment for the sake of a laugh. There is a beautiful tenderness between Anthony and his lover’s former room mate and a nail biting head to head with Anthony and the mysterious villain of the piece which I really wanted to linger in and enjoy without the gag breaking the moment. This is nit-picking though and testament to the investment the cast managed to provoke in me.
At its heart Tumulus is a play about intimacy between gay men. It tears past the sex and demands that we look at non-sexual intimacy. Something which we often struggle to find the words to describe or the know-how to engage in. Tumulus offers us the chance to observe these themes from the safety of our theatre seats. Go see it.