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Turning society inside out

By Alix Norman

The advertising poster depicts a bowler-hatted gentleman with an apple for a face – a copy of Magritte’s self-portrait ‘The Son of Man’. And it’s a perfect symbol of the play, says director Catherine Beger. “To me, the painting perfectly captures the essence of the script: this very conservative figure representing the façade of control and power, juxtaposed with an apple – a device associated with freedom and choice.”

The play is Ali Smith’s Just and, like Catherine’s interpretation of the poster, it’s all about the demands and challenges of our social systems, adherence to the rule of authority, and the potential consequences therein. “Ali Smith is a great political writer,” says Catherine, “and the play itself is incredibly funny in a very, very clever way. It’s provocative – challenging the preconceptions of the audience – and very unpredictable; it turns society inside out. As theatre of the absurd, we get a play within a play, and the breaking down of the fourth wall that allows the audience themselves to realise they’re part of the system. There are so many ingredients that challenge the social niceties by which we live.”

So it’s particularly surprising to discover that Just is to be performed for the first time in Cyprus, not by a group of professional thespians but by a group of talented youngsters, students at the Little Muse Theatre aged between 15 and 18. “The cast,” says Catherine, “is relatively small. There are about nine characters in total: Victoria, Albert, Mrs Wright and a chorus, who all represent fairly clear societal stereotypes. And the set is similarly basic, merely a bus stop and a pot plant.”

The protagonist, Victoria (“she characterises all of those who stand up and try to make a difference in society; the animal rights protestors, the gay rights activists, the Paris journalists regarding the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, in fact anyone who questions what we are doing and what codes we are living by,” says Catherine) is an organic apple farmer who stumbles across a corpse – impaled upon an umbrella – at a bus stop. As she prepares to investigate, Albert the policeman (“Albert typifies those of us who are guilty of always supporting the system, sitting on the fence and defending the status quo”) appears, and immediately assumes she’s guilty of the crime. Enter Mrs Wright (the name says it all), smartly dressed and tellingly blindfolded – against the truth, perhaps – closely followed by a faceless chorus of suited clones, who speak both in rhyme and in unison…

Assumptions are quickly made, Victoria is handcuffed, despite her profane protestations (be warned, there’s a more than a spot of strong language in the script), and even poor Albert comes in for a bit of grief. Tensions heighten, fights break out, and Victoria takes a stand in demanding trial by jury. But when the twelve men good and true appear, in fact two of them, it’s clear they’re just loosely-disguised members of the chorus, and minds are already made up.

“There are loads of wonderful speeches, and lots of surprising twists to the plot,” Catherine continues, sagely declining to give away what one surmises might be a wholly unexpected ending, before intoning one of the chorus’ unnerving lines: “‘Every time we find the perfect someone new to blame / And then when we think it’s over, it all begins again.’ As a play, it’s very random and bizarre. But it’s also extremely powerful. Like its title…

“Just is such a little word,” she remarks. “A small, tiny word that has so many meanings and can be used in so many situations: ‘just one more scone’, ‘just about there’, and ‘just enough’. But it also represents everything that’s fair and impartial: ‘a just decision’. In the performance, this play on words relates to the understanding of ‘just’ and ‘justice’ according to each person who uses the word. And we take a look at things like social injustice, its objective according to who’s actually running society, and what we, the people, think is truly just.

“It’s not a commercial comedy by any stretch of the imagination,” she concludes, “but I think it will make people really re-evaluate their beliefs. Because all of us make value judgements based on the structure of our system – it’s how we’re taught. But maybe Just can help us rethink those views.” Food for thought, then. And a performance that really challenges its audience. Surely just the ticket for an inspiring night out!

Little Muse Theatre presents a performance of Ali Smith’s play on June 6 at 8pm at the American Academy junior School Hall in Larnaca. Tickets cost €5. For more information call Catherine Beger on 96 216435, email [email protected] or visit the Facebook page ‘Little Muse Youth Theatre Presents Just by Ali Smith’

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