York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal’s studio is a pretty small performance space and tonight it was laid out in such a way that, as the audience filtered into the room, we had to walk across the set and through the lives of the characters we were yet to meet. In a way, the sight was quite shocking – we passed the skeletal ruins of a sofa, cardboard boxes and discarded items across the floor. And then, as we passed a coffee table, there lay the body of a young woman, positioned in such way that we had to step over or around her to reach our seats. This set up raised questions in our minds that we hoped would be answered, it forced us to take a walk through the lives of the characters of Jadek and enabled us to form an instant connection with them.
Jadek is a production by Leeds-based Imagine if Theatre Company and was written and co-directed by Francesca Joy, the very body on the floor over which I had just stepped. She plays Tasha, a young woman who lives with her grandad, played by Piotr Baumann. Tasha has just moved in with her blind, 94 year old grandad, who is still struggling with his memories of Poland in World War 2. In between caring for him, she also deals with a publisher who is looking to publish her first children’s novel.
The structure of the play is fairly loose, and follows the burgeoning bittersweet relationship between the two. It’s an intimate affair that lends us an insight into their daily lives – grandad continually berates his granddaughter when she’s late home from the shops, Tasha fixes the boiler and insists that she won’t blow up their home despite his protestations, and grandad learns the finer details of how to use his Alexa device in order to hear the weather forecast. In Jadek, we watch a very small slice of the world, but despite its subject matter, this play is no mere niche concern. The honesty and humanity on display deal with universal and relatable themes, be it caring for an elderly relative, dealing with past trauma and the whether we should merely “play the game” to get by in life. Both Joy and Baumann feel completely natural in their roles and they lend the proceedings with a gentle comic touch as the two bicker affectionately back and forth. Baumann’s performance, in particular, is breathtaking as an elderly man who carefully and painfully shuffles around a house he cannot see. His switches between frailty and stubbornness at a moment’s notice and, as harrowing as his story can be, it is a pleasure to spend time in his company. Despite feeling so off the cuff and authentic, the writing is very deliberate and clever enough to drop seeds throughout the course of the play that suddenly and unexpectedly bloom into surprising revelations for both the audience and the characters.
Providing a counterpoint the natural feel of the main narrative, the play is punctuated by a series of jarring sequences. At points the stage darkens and the soundtrack swells as Tasha contorts into a series of positions, equal parts suggestive and tortuous. Heavily treated recorded dialogue plays over these sequences and we hear one sided snippets of conversation as Tasha speaks to a man/ a series of men. In these sequences, we see another version of Tasha as she sells her body by the hour, a version of Tasha that only very briefly bleeds over into the main narrative. It’s a darker, even surreal subplot that provides a chilling parallel to the story of the sale of her novel – she finds herself in a situation where needs to perform sex acts to survive, just as she must agree to her publisher’s increasing demands to change central aspects of her cherished novel. As the story further teases out the details of grandad’s dreams, his horrific past provides further parallels, and granddaughter and grandad both begin to question whether playing this game is the way they should live their lives.
The whole play is accompanied by wonderful sound design that adds depth and emotional resonance throughout, from bright melodic bubblings to the eerie soundscapes that inhabit the play’s darker corners. A speaking clock breaks the play into segments and Alexa interjects at key moments, at one point malfunctioning and spewing out a stream of questions that have been asked by grandad throughout the play.
But the real appeal of the play lies in the tiny details, the nuances in the performance that gently reach out and grab the audience by the throat. At one point grandad finds himself tending some plants in his garden, speaking to his unseen neighbour, Mark. As he spoke, a member of the audience suddenly found himself included in the performance and began to assume the role of Mark as he engaged in conversation with grandad and Tasha. This small, off the cuff moment served to formalise the connection between performers and audience that had begun with our miniature tour through their world before the play even started. It generated an emotional spark , and a fitting climax to the performance. There are lofty themes at work throughout Jadek, however what stands out most is one simple word: connection. Connection between audience and performer. Connection between two very different generations. Emotional connections to support and enrich one another’s lives. Jadek will be going on tour throughout November and December and is a connection worth making.