Review by Harry Bower.
Written in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, another VAULT Festival alumnus takes its place on-stage at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham. Compositor E transports its audience four centuries back in time, to the workshop of well-respected printing house, Jaggard’s, tasked with the job of producing this mammoth piece of work. The son of a dying father, cocksure but competent Isaac Jaggard is a disrupter in the printing sector and has ambition to build on existing contracts with the government and royal family to make his family business the first ever printer-publisher. A butting head but reliably at his side is aspiring poet, failed actor, and magnificent stalwart compositor, Richard. An upstart apprentice, John, sits in earnest, but is overwhelmed by the frantic workshop set before him. Pages of manuscript hang overhead, their ink drying in the air.
John is just seventeen years old and finds himself dropped in at the deep end. When Richard is taken ill, his responsibilities suddenly escalate and he finds himself focused on completing the manuscript for Macbeth, reading, and digesting the play as he manipulates the letters on the page. When he begins to see parallels with his own life, memories of his mother’s death reveal themselves and John faces a moral dilemma about his work preserving problematic history. With a fitting subplot of betrayal bubbling away between Richard and Isaac, the three men argue and attempt to convince each other of their truths for much of the 80-minute run time.
The trio are supported by three ensemble members. Perhaps underused, they serve as workshop staff buzzing around the place, moving equipment, sorting ink and bounding papers, always busy but never engaged in anything other than busy work. I’m not sure if the desire to mirror the infamous three witches featured in Shakespeare’s text overruled sensibilities, but it does seem a waste of three clearly talented performers to have them on stage for such a short period of time.
Kaffe Keating plays an exasperated and under-pressure Isaac with complexity, a pained look in his eyes reflecting immense time and cultural pressure, and an underlying vulnerability which piqued my interest throughout. Isaac’s resentful and problematic but reliable compositor, Richard, is played by David Monteith. Monteith gives it a great crack but is perhaps let down by the script. Tré Medley as John Leason is blessed with some of the most robust and refined dialogue in the piece. He does a stellar job at demonstrating real character growth, from timid apprentice to accomplished compositor. A final monologue is delivered with as much gusto as you can imagine possible and Medley’s commitment evident.
Some genuinely fantastic technical aspects in this production deserve praise. Sophia Pardon’s set design is authentic and effective, making it really feel as though you’re in a dirty, working print shop. The projection of words and letters on the back wall and the hanging paperwork is classy and professional and lighting design by Rachel Sampley matches, providing a dramatic and atmospheric environment in which the story unfolds. Sound design by Adam P McCready is the first thing I noticed as the piece began. A few relatively simple but incredibly effective techniques as doors open and close and the sounds of a working print shop flood the auditorium, do a brilliant job of immersing the audience.
It’s fascinating that a play like Compositor E would open in the same week in which a controversial giant of the publishing world announces their retirement (farewell Mr. Murdoch you may not be missed), and in an era in which those controlling the narrative are more powerful than ever. My disappointment is that although the play has a good stab at challenging the audience to think about how history is created, it does so in a frustrating and dry way. By the time the hammer blow is set to be delivered I had already experienced my epiphany, realised there was half an hour left of the show, and noticed myself beginning to disengage.
An odd and out of place movement sequence is performed with energy and is objectively good but seemed to me to have been inserted for no obvious reason. Some of the dialogue comes across as borderline self-indulgent or pretentious, always brought back from the edge by fantastic performances and some robust direction. Tonally the piece was inconsistent, it felt, both with language and character development decisions. The script could do with some tightening too – there is a limit to how many times I can listen to someone spelling out a sentence and continue resisting the temptation to switch off.
With six cast members and decent technical elements, plus a fantastic and initially engaging plot, Compositor E feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. If it was twenty minutes shorter or had something additional to say which could fill the time, I have no doubt it would be a hugely successful piece of theatre. At the very least, its overall message is one I’ve been thinking about a lot since I left the Omnibus after the metaphorical curtain had fallen. The way in which our history is represented in language is entirely influenced by the person capturing that history.
In 2023, with multimedia commonplace and many people writing about the same subject with various viewpoints, it might not be as straightforward to argue the problems of 400 years ago are still present. And yet, so many of us exist in our echo chambers and with far narrower trusted sources of information perhaps even than in the days of Isaac, Richard, and John. The latter’s closing monologue is perhaps a bit blunt, and the breaking of the fourth wall perhaps a bit cliché – but you can’t argue with the meaning behind the rallying cry which has prompted my afterthought. Compositor E is a good reminder if nothing else of the importance of narrative control, and just how directly some people can influence our history-making in real time.
Compositor E plays at Omnibus Theatre until 07 October 2023. For more information and tickets visit https://www.omnibus-clapham.org/compositor-e/
Photos by Dan Tsantillis