Walking into the University of Ottawa’s historic Academic Hall for MFA (Stage Direction) candidate Pamela Feghali’s third and final production at UofO’s Theatre Department, I couldn’t help but gasp audibly at the stage. It’s not often that an Ottawa theatre-goer is treated to such complex narrative that is evident in Mark Ravenhill’s text, pool (no water), let alone seeing drama taken out of the ‘drawing room’ so completely. Feghali, it seems, doesn’t want her audience to have an easy go at it with her mise-en-scene looking to challenge the viewer and their conceptions about art. Truly a notable moment in the Ottawa theatre scene, pool (no water) under Feghali’s direction is an inspired production that embodies creativity and boldness.
First produced in 2006 at the Drum Theatre in Plymouth, pool (no water) comes to us from one of Britain’s most provocative playwrights. While his earlier work, such as Shopping and Fucking, could be characterized as trying to represent contemporary British society; later works like pool (no water) are decidedly more experimental and abstract. This play in particular (similar to some works of Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp) has no explicit characters or parts assigned, but the voices within the text reveal a seething collective experience of guilt and jealousy. Violently deconstructing the ideals of friendship and art, Ravenhill exposes a deep vein of envy.
Undoubtedly a director has their work cut out for them in undertaking the staging of such a play. Given that there are little to no stage directions, the director is required to make numerous dramaturgical decisions regarding (though not limited to, obviously): the number of speakers; the speakers’ characters and their motivations; what actually happens in the narrative; whether the speakers are multiple individual voices or one individual with many sides to them; whether they are talking about someone in their present group or an absent party; and this all happens before getting any performers up on stage. Feghali, who I’ve seen successfully take on Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in the past, really handles herself well here in fitting the text to her aesthetics as a director and also shows a competent understanding of how Ravenhill’s text should be delivered to its audiences.
Visually speaking, the stage is designed in such a way that it never becomes tiresome watching the characters slink around on the asymmetrical platforms (designed by Brian Smith) dressed in outfits, courtesy of Andrée-Ève Archambault, that represent the blasé decadence that has become stereotypical of the ‘creative class’. The lighting, by Paul Auclair, is also really well-done and creates a major ‘wow’ moment for me the very first time the pool lights go on. Last but certainly not least, Cullen McGrail’s sound design colours in the rest of Feghali’s picture, fleshing out a universe that is at once beautiful yet hostile.
While some of the performances could have been stronger, I think the actors do a fine job under Feghali’s guidance. At times the acting felt a little too “on the nose” for me in that the lazy malevolence they appear to be embodying doesn’t ever really build or dissipate, remaining rather one note for most of the piece (perhaps this is why the running time of 60 minutes felt doubled). That being said, the images Feghali has put on stage here, most notably the moment where performer Lydia Ryding is slowly writhing at the bottom of the pool describing ‘her’ broken body, are strong and memorable. Sitting here writing this review almost one month post-production and I can still clearly recall Ryding’s eyes piercing into mine as she (almost) desperately reaches out for help.
Overall, this production of pool (no water) leaves me feeling exhilarated. It is so refreshing to see a young emerging director in this city take a giant risk on stage and, even better, to see that risk pay off. I expect exciting things to come from Ms. Feghali in the future and whether that’s here in Ottawa or somewhere else entirely, you won’t want to miss her work.