Imaginary Natural Beings – Camden Fringe – Theatre Review
There is a naturalistic quality about Imaginary Natural Beings which emanates from its minimalistic stage design, at the Teatro Technis, and a powerful, exuberant performance by Tilly Magwaza as the woman at life’s cross roads struggling to find meaning within her life and identity whilst attempting to navigate through years of emotional abuse, unconscious bias, intersectionality and more. So much so, that Magwaza is introduced to the stage in a state of discomfort lying on the floor, dressed in black as an unknown figure whose intriguing story is to be unwrapped delicately layer by layer. This immediate resonance with the central character is undoubtedly due to the compelling nature of Magwaza’s delivery as The Girl, but it also reflects the stellar writing.
The scriptwriting’s poetic power reverberates throughout The Girl’s dialogue and the decision to tackle mental illness and psychological trauma directly. Despite there not being an initial confirmation of the protagonist’s location or identity, there is the impression of a crisis or breakthrough occurring at that juncture. The stage’s narrow perimeters and the situating of benches on either side of the protagonist convey that claustrophobic sense of judgement similar to a court, a prison or another cage. Within the audience we, as spectators, are also forming that critical view – observing and awaiting the signs to satisfy our unconscious bias.
Cleverly, Imaginary Natural Beings projects this level of judgement within its directorial choice for audience immersion. As the play progresses between the past and the present, it emphasises the importance of words from the primary and secondary means of socialisation, at home and at school. Being subject to micro aggressions such as being asked where you come from, having your hair compared to ‘horse hair’ or having an emotional burden from stray, casually cruel retorts from a mother figure, an impressively chilly Genevieve Labuschagne, can impact a child’s confidence and mental wellbeing. Magwaza portrays the emotional trauma from these turbulent periods with aplomb, the anguish on her face being evident.
Following its entry in the Vault Festival, where Imaginary Natural Beings was met with critical acclaim, it is clear that this play would succeed in even larger festivals and venues. Writer Mojola Akinyemi has, in Imaginary Natural Beings as her second feature play, created a thought provoking, immersive, poetic journey with sharp writing, from a simple premise, to convey mental anguish, childhood trauma and psychological self-awareness.
The play uses flashbacks to demonstrate pivotal moments within the lead’s life that may cause distress and uncomfortable viewing by watching the disdain and lack of empathy from central characters within her microcosm. This device is used bluntly, at times but underlines that previously accepted behaviours are no longer tolerated in society but continue to have a long lasting negative impact on the impacted individuals. Whilst the world was watching in 2020, black squares were posted on social media in support of addressing the prejudice levelled towards under-represented communities. Imaginary Natural Beings also highlights such prejudicial behaviour and underscores the impact of a well written script capturing such themes to invade our consciousness and provide that continuous level of questioning the status quo.
The play demonstrates the systemic problems of institutions but some of its messages may be lost due to the minimalistic setting. These onstage dynamics mean that, as the supporting actors are playing multiple roles, there are moments of uncertainty as to which period is being depicted. Sometimes, neon lighting emphasises memories of The Girl’s teenage years within a nightclub setting but in other moments that distinction is not obvious.
Overall, Imaginary Natural Beings is a riveting watch with a lot to unpack, requiring the audience to reflect on life choices, Beckett, being products of our environment and cultivating a sense of self-worth despite adversity. All of which is mesmerisingly captured in Magwaza’s empathetic delivery as she commands the stage with her presence, in this journey of healing and self-analysis. She makes good use of the centre of the stage to immerse the audience fully within her world and stream of consciousness. The play also shows the necessity for well written scripts, with poetic sounding prose, that will provoke further discussion and provide actors with a rich tapestry for their performances. It is an impressive play with brilliant phrases such as ‘misery island’ to describe the UK. With a bigger budget, the full extent of Imaginary Natural Beings’ creativity, as a production, would be delightful to observe. Undoubtedly, Mojola’s future works as a writer will be fascinating to follow and, you heard it here first, she will obviously be a writer to keep on the radar.