We ask a lot of short stories — they need to make the reader, or, if on the stage, the audience, feel the same peaks and troughs of emotion as a lengthier work; they need to speak to us with the same profundity, take us on the same journey with far fewer resources at their disposal. Like the best poetry or the best tiny-portioned gourmet hors d’oeuvre, every word, every morsel must count — there is no space for anything else. Few writers, however talented, can truly succeed at such an exacting craft. But when it goes right, like good poetry or, indeed, a good amuse-bouche, there is nothing better.
Hal Coase’s self-proclaimed epic Callisto, is not quite that — though it spans a great deal of time and space, from 17th century London to a post apocalyptic future, it is in truth four distinct short stories, each self-contained, and only very loosely connected to the others. The characters — Arabella, an opera star married to a woman who lives her life as a man in public; Alan Turing, who is still tormented by the loss of his first love seven years after his death; Tammy, a ‘70s American housewife who leaves her husband to meet a woman she has never met; and Cal the artificial intelligence and his creator, Lorn – play out their stories separately. Individually these stories are small treasures. Collectively they are a masterclass in good short-storytelling.
Occasionally, in an attempt to interweave the four storylines, Coase creates a smash-cut of dialogue, and the characters wander onto each other’s scenes (though they never acknowledge each other). He has limited success with this. Rather than shedding light on both stories through use of mirroring or contrasts, actors speak over one another and these transitions descend into clumsiness and confusion.
Gratifyingly these missteps are only a small constituent part of the whole. The production is otherwise elegantly pared down, and almost prop-free. The action takes place on an empty stage that is bordered by a neon strip lighting which fizzes into colour for impact; there is not much of a score but a few well placed clashes of percussion punctuate the work. The simplicity of the production design works particularly well in the Arcola, where the theatres are small studio spaces — the seating is only three deep and the audience surrounds the stage from three sides. The proximity of the actors lends urgency to the performance, the dramatic scenes are visceral, and the parts where the actors single out individual audience members, speaking to them directly, feel totally immersive.
Nick Finerty is particularly brilliant: his performance as Cal, a AI who grows into his humanity, is beautifully understated, but he is equally as memorable in his portrayal of secondary characters, filling the roles of the vain, melodramatic Hart, and the sleazy and abusive Harold masterfully. Phoebe Hames, as Isobel, the mother of Alan’s long-lost love is also wonderfully believable, managing to convey a whole spectrum of emotions with a quick downturn of her mouth and a swig from an ever-present glass of whiskey.
Coase’s writing is thoughtful, moving, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Too often in queer stories, gay women rarely receive the spotlight, but Coase celebrates female sexuality, writing his female characters with complexity and humour — and happily Hames, Georgia Bruce, Mary Higgins, Marilyn Nadebe, and Francesca Zoutewelle make them shine with their performances. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a work as sweeping, Coase’s ambition gets the better of him at times — a sense of the unfinished lingers with regards to Arabella and Alan’s stories though Tammy and Cal’s reach satisfying conclusions. “I don’t believe the word love has ever meant the same thing twice”, Alan says in the second act, in response to Isobel’s attempt to force him to admit his romantic feelings towards her dead son. Coase’s commitment to showing the diversity of queer experience through time is commendable, but Callisto ’s structure may have been helped by a stronger common thread tying the four stories together.
These are ultimately small quibbles. Callisto enjoyed a sold-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe last year with good reason — it is a remarkable work with an enormously talented cast — I left the theatre eager to see it again. It is only at the Arcola for 3 weeks this December, and it is not one to be missed.
Castillo: a queer epic
Arcola Theatre Until 23rd December 2017 £18, concessions: £16