Sitting through a wedding can often be a tedious affair, though not if, as in the case of Sam Holcroft’s A Mirror, transferring from the Almeida to the West End’s Trafalgar Theatre, the whole ceremony is actually a ruse, and the real reason we’re there is to watch a play.
Confused? You may well be, and things get even more confusing when, at one point, you realise you’re watching a play – within a play – within a play – within a wedding! This is one of those productions where saying too much somewhat ruins the experience, so to keep it brief – this is an unnamed totalitarian state and all culture has to be approved by the ministry. This play, which we’re watching under the guise of being wedding guests, has not been approved.
The entire theatre is taken over by the production, the Trafalgar’s foyer bedecked in flowers and ribbons, and as we take our seats there’s an order or service for the pending nuptials. Look carefully in the unlikeliest of places (the gents loos for example) and you’ll find recruitment posters for the Commission for Public Order.
Given this is a ‘clandestine performance’ it’s an unsurprisingly small group of characters we meet. A director at the Ministry of Culture named Čelik, his inexperienced assistant, Mei (Tanya Reynolds), a mechanic turned aspiring playwright, Adem and an established and beloved writer, Bax.
Directed by Jeremy Herrin, everything moves as a satisfying pace, but at the same time, things sometimes feel like they’re moving too slowly. The darling of the ministry, Bax (Geoffrey Streatfeild) is brought in to mentor Adem, and one of his most popular works is re- enacted, not only does this take us deeper into the play within a play structure, it also stalls the main narrative.
Probably the biggest problem with A Mirror are the characters themselves. The marketing tagline is ‘This Play is a Lie’ so perhaps that’s why none of the people we meet are entirely believable. We can’t accept Adem’s (Samuel Adewunmi)actions because that would mean an unlikely amount of naivety on his part. Čelik, whose main occupation is to censor art, comes across too sympathetic and caring, and would he really invest so much in nurturing new talent?
The cast do a fine job with the characters as written. Jonny Lee Miller undoubtedly stands out as Čelik, present on stage for much of the performance, Miller gives this towering figure a quiet, diminutive stature that ultimately makes him all the more dangerous. Jude Akuwudike also breathes some fresh air into proceedings, but for reasons that will become apparent if you watch the play, Akuwudike appears in only one brief scene.
Whilst a perfectly enjoyable play, A Mirror can leave you feeling a little frustrated, possibly because it doesn’t feel like the production has fully decided what it wants to say. We might not have a Lord Chamberlain’s office censoring work anymore, but many would argue that funding bodies, such as ACE, act as unofficial gatekeepers to the arts.
There’s an enjoyable twist in the tale, but ultimately A Mirror doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about censorship. A compelling story, but unnecessarily convoluted at times.