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Vessel review at Battersea Arts Centre, London – ‘wide-reaching, but frustrating’

The cast of Vessel at Battersea Arts Centre, London. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Sue MacLaine’s latest piece is a wide-reaching gaze over the abundance of inequalities directed towards women.

Narrated stoically by Tess Agus, Angela Clerkin, Kailing Fu and Karlina Grace Paseda, MacLaine’s text is an endless, exhaustive litany of injustices and invocations.

Language reduces itself down until words are revealed for their inherent artificiality – and by proxy, the systems in place which maintain the oppression of minorities are broken down. It’s a prescient idea, but one which feels overly emphasised.

If MacLaine’s intention is to stress the bone-achingly exhausting nature of oppression, she succeeds, but the content she’s covering – capitalism and patriarchy in particular – ultimately feels a little safe.

The constant refrain of “Let’s talk about” suggests that there will be some level of dialogue, if not between the performers and audience, then at least the performers themselves – but the piece never makes it beyond the initial words.

Owen Crouch’s sound design is haunting, transcending MacLaine’s increasingly frustrating text, and Seke Chimutengwende’s choreography is lithe and ritualistic, seeking to express that which cannot be said through language. And there is something politically interesting in MacLaine’s direction of her performers – the women’s deliberately distanced and detached narration of horrors subverts the image of women constantly being passive, degraded objects onstage. But it slips too far that way, which is the piece’s ultimate downfall – it becomes flattened, and when the inevitable explosion of rage comes, it’s neutered and unearned.

The piece is, ironically, at its strongest when it reduces itself to the wordless and ineffable expressions of pain and fear – when it submits itself to Ben Pacey’s winding whirl of sound and colour.

Can I Start Again Please

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Wide-reaching but frustrating exploration of inequality and oppression