Image by DALLE
Image by DALLE

Eden: Paradise lost or community theatre at its core?


Review of Eden, written by Luke Dunne, synopsis: “Eight unnamed characters embark on a journey of ritual, cruelty and love with high spirits and good humour, reliving old stories and inventing new ones”

Community theatre, according to that bastion of all things accurate, Wikipedia, refers to “any theatrical performance made in relation to particular communities—its usage includes theatre made by, with, and for a community”. In this respect Eden, the production that closed out the 2023-24 season at English Theatre Leipzig (ETL), could be considered a success. It was clear that this was a production that people cared about and were engaged with.

According to the director, Izzy Collie-Cousins, “…we cast Eden in December, before the script was fully finished. We cast them without assigning the roles. I did this because I wanted us to workshop it as a chorus at first. That was very important because we wanted to see what people’s natural chemistry was with one another.”

Publicity flyer for "Eden" by Luke Dunne at English Theatre Leipzig, courtesy of ETL
Publicity flyer for Eden by Luke Dunne at English Theatre Leipzig, courtesy of ETL

Both the writer, Luke Dunne, and the director talk about Eden in an interview on the ETL website with what comes across as genuine care and passion for the project.

I think the same can be said for the cast, who seemed to be genuinely engaged with the material. This is where community theatre is at its best: providing a voice and an opportunity for people to perform who might not ordinarily get the chance.

The set design by Talea Funk and Simon Veyl worked well for the most part, although (despite seeing the production on its penultimate performance in March) there were still a few kinks to be worked out with the white curtain on stage left. Soil across the stage was a nice touch and used to effect in one moment. Lighting was effective and very pretty at times, with the use of blues and purples.

If these are the positives, we can move on to the other aspects of the production.

The audio design by Jack Heritage was OK, but perhaps not as nuanced with meaning as Izzy would have us believe:

It has this really nice uncanny quality, and makes the whole sound design of the show feel much more layered.

The staging and movement was at times stylised, sometimes more realistic. Some performers used exaggerated movements, some not so much. There was good use of the space; when performers were not front and centre but engaged in “business” they were adept at not upstaging their fellow performers. This is more than can be said for the poor individual from the audience who failed to navigate the sliding doors for a subtle loo break.

It is here that the negatives should be addressed. The text of the play itself is pretty much impenetrable. One comment I heard was “Bible Poetry Slam”. They weren’t wrong. Izzy says in her interview,

Maybe people will discuss their interpretations of what some parts are about or who certain people are. I hope it’s kind of inspiring or stimulating in that way.

It wasn’t. From what I overheard in the bar the overriding question was, “Did you understand it?”. Most of the audience didn’t.

Invoking biblical narratives is a tricky thing to pull off.

In 1951 Christopher Fry created some controversy when he wrote a play in verse, A Sleep of Prisoners. Four prisoners of war are locked in a church overnight. As tensions rise, a murderous fight breaks out between two of the characters. When the dust settles, the attempted murder is seen successively in the stories of Cain and Abel, David and Absalom, and Abraham and Isaac.

Each character in A Sleep of Prisoners interprets the fight from their own perspective. For the youngest soldier and the target of the aggression, he perceives it as Isaac being sacrificed by Abraham. It’s not an easy read. With Eden, the biblical links and the intertwining stories made little, if any, sense, and what threads were woven to link them were so obfuscated as to leave the audience wondering what point was being made at any given time.

If the text itself was not doing anyone any favours, the performances in Eden simply compounded the problem.

They ranged between poor and unremarkable, with one character essentially being a carbon copy of their performance in ETL’s Could someone iron the tinsel, please? late last year. Having said that, there were moments of hope. Jim Burns raised perhaps the only laugh of the evening and Yuval Gal Cohen had occasional moments too.

But despite those, it is not enough to just come on stage and wait politely to say your next line. It became an exercise in barking out a line, with no connection to what was being said before or at the time. It made an already difficult text, impossible. Disjointed and disconnected.

If the actors on stage don’t believe the words coming out of their mouth, how is the audience supposed to?

This is perhaps the most egregious failing of the piece. Now, it may be argued it was a conscious decision made in the workshopping process. But it was a poor one. If it was not an intentional decision, then more actual directing of actors was needed.

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind
Scene from one of English Theatre Leipzig’s past productions, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. Image by Jackson Quang, courtesy of English Theatre Leipzig.

If amateur theatre has a contract with one side of the community, it could be argued that charging anywhere up to €16 for a ticket leads to a certain responsibility to the paying audience. It is here that I fear it could be argued that, with this particular production, ETL has lost its way.

Peter is a professional actor. Film credits this year include Uncharted with Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, and Antonio Banderas, The Expert at the Card Table, and the award-winning short film, Swiped, which he both starred in and co-produced. He can shortly be seen in The Net opposite Amanda Abbington, and will be filming several episodes of a new international streaming series in November. He is the founder of Offstimme which has become one of Germany’s largest voiceover agencies.

Elia García Cañabate, founder of International Leipzig. Photo courtesy of Elia García Cañabate
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