A poetry show with a difference, Wistful combines spoken word with physical theatre – using visual imagery to unlock the meaning of writer-director H F Speirs’ verse. A six-member cast take turns to narrate a series of ten poems, while their fellow performers deploy movement, dance, and occasional acrobatics to amplify and punctuate the text.
When it works, it works brilliantly. The highlight for me is The Empty Chair – which sees Josh Twaites narrate a poignant poem about a man approaching death, while pairs of actors conjure touching physical images of tenderness and loss. Ode To An Addict is angry and urgent, the narrator reciting the poem with bodies writing and spluttering around him, while The Songbird – which is literally sung – uses powerful imagery to capture a cycle of abuse: singer Ryann Leete is encircled by grotesque figures, each contorting their faces as they inspect and belittle her.
But a few of the pieces, for me, are misfires. The effect relies on a delicate equilibrium between narration and action, letting neither overwhelm the other; that balance didn’t always come off, meaning the poems themselves didn’t always land in my consciousness the way they deserved to. And while the in-the-round performance space is used to great effect, sometimes it meant a key line was lost – narrated by an actor with their back to me, standing on the far side of the stage.
Ambitiously, Wistful also seeks to explain the power of poetry to a generation that might hesitate to engage with it. It starts well, with an opening piece defining what makes a writer a poet (and, in the process, explaining the show’s intriguing title). But I’m less convinced by the rhyming couplets between each pair of poems, which summarise what we’ve heard and announce the emotional anchor of the next verse to come. There’s a fine line between guiding your audience and patronising them – and these, I fear, may tend towards the latter.
But the costumes, designed by Karina Zakharyan, have an eloquence of their own; with tunics seemingly made of sack-cloth, they embody the implicit goal of freeing poetry from an ivory tower and making it accessible to everyone. The poems themselves are evocative and meaningful, resolutely focused on modern-day concerns. And there’s no denying the show is a visual treat, with Alfie Nugent deserving particular mention for his stage presence and athletic physicality.
Wistful still has a slightly experimental feel, but there’s much to admire and enjoy in its bold fusion of artforms. I hope this is just the beginning of the journey for this exciting student-led group.