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Without Warning at The Old Vic Tunnels

Alice Dickerson

An extremely well executed piece of experimental theatre, this production fails to realise its ambitious aims.

The story of Brian Keenan remains seared on the conscience of the British public, despite the time that has lapsed since it unfolded. Keenan endured an almost unimaginable emotional and physical ordeal over four and a half years of captivity in Lebanon during the late 1980s. One of the few ways we can ever begin to try and understand his experience is via An Evil Cradling, the memoir which Keenan wrote soon after he was released.

Without Warning has been inspired by An Evil Cradling and also attempts to enable an understanding of Keenan's imprisonment. Its artistic director, Lizzi Kew Ross, speaks of Keenan's powerful writing, his 'clear and visceral word portraits'. Described at its commencement as a 'promenade piece', Without Warning requires the audience to become intimately involved in the experience, following the performers around the dimly lit tunnels underneath Waterloo Station. Very little direction is offered; the only indication of where one should stand is provided by the presence and movement of the actors.

However, the four dancers and four musicians appear and disappear with such rapidity and illogic that it was not unknown to find yourself at the back of the audience when you had, only a minute before, been at the front. This results in a very British stampede, as audience members strain to keep up with the performance, whilst also attempting to ensure they do not tread on one another's toes.

It must be as challenging a performance for the actors to act as it is for the spectators to watch. As the audience fluctuates and scatters, the configuration of the space in which the actors perform is unknown and constantly changeable. It could only work in a space such as the Old Vic Tunnels, which allows for such movement and experimentation. However, whilst the tunnels may provide the required atmosphere and space, they could not come close to conjuring up the tiny, cockroach and rat infested cells to which Keenan was confined.

Similarly, the performance does not sufficiently convey the terror Keenan must have felt, the 'constant abuse and violence', nor the 'mercurial temperament and psychotic personality' of his captors. Fittingly for a performance based on a period of time spent largely in solitude, there is no dialogue for the first 15 minutes and after that the dialogue is limited and disjointed. However, this means that the closeness that arose between Keenan and John McCarthy, a British journalist who was held with Keenan during some of his captivity, can only be hinted at.

Given its abstract nature, the performance requires a basic understanding of Brian Keenan's experience. Yet, even with this, one does not feel that Without Warning does his ordeal justice. It is undoubtedly harrowing and disconcerting but ultimately leaves the audience confused rather than affected.

Without Warning is at The Old Vic Tunnels until 11 February.

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