All is Well is a title juxtaposed against the plot of this new play by Vanessa Oakes. Set in the years after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, the worst nuclear power accident in history, All is Well addresses the lives of four individuals affected by the catastrophe’s aftermath. Yet no title could better summarise the raw feeling that the play explores. It is a play which, at its heart, tackles the striking complexity of living in the moment after a disaster – balancing the looming presence of the past as it exists alongside imagined visions of the future. “All is well” is both a reassuring phrase passed down through generations and a declaration of hope – particularly, for a future in which the young couple of the play find a way to carve a path for love in a setting that seems to offer only tragedy.
The setting of the Shopfront Theatre stage is integral to the creation within All is Well of an intricate connection between individual lives and mass disaster. It is a connection between the families of the past, who had been promised a better future in machinery and technology and had this instead replaced with disruption and destruction, and those who still stand who are trying to make sense of the world as it exists after the meltdown. There is always space between the characters; under Mark Evans’s direction, the complex subtleties of movement by the actors make this tension between the present and the past palpable. In this present there is a constant sense of misunderstanding and mistrust; love, identity, and life are shown to have become necessarily intertwined with fear and danger.
The young couple, Stefan (Jack Richardson) and Nina (Aimee Powell), are in a constant battle over Stefan’s job. Stefan brings tourists to the forest: a job he hopes will bolster the local economy and bring people to a place he still considers home. Nina, on the other hand, has seen the effects of radiation among the children of the local area and dashes his forced, capitalist optimism with the line: “they come to look at the horror.” Aleks (Mark Carey) is caught between his decisions to leave his home in the hopes of something more and his desperate connection with the place where he last saw his Mother, Anna (Janice McKenzie). All is Well is highly successful in showing the ways in which the personal will always be representative of and closely connected with the political. The characters often overtly describe the reasons behind their actions, and we are invited to consider often drawn to view the perceptions of the characters upon one another, the significance of what these characters do in trying to go on living in more depth than just seeing the immediate action.
The only character who is not caught up in a state of unresolved chaos in this same way is Anna who refuses to leave the forest which she still considers her home. She is a symbol of tradition, but in many ways her traditional way of life cannot continue. We learn this straight away when she eats a berry despite its likelihood of having been contaminated with radiation. She is set against a clock which makes up part of the backdrop of the stage next to a photograph of herself pinned, in remembrance, to the trees. The clock remains on the same, unchanging date and time – the moment of the explosion at Chernobyl’s reactor four – throughout the play. She seems to be always rushing, and yet she is never actually going anywhere. The forest is where all of the action of All is Well takes place; this natural setting has, in a disturbing way, become a place which is characterised by its constant volatility. The characters are warned not to stay there too long for fear of radiation sickness but it is also simultaneously eerily static in the aftermath of destruction. The characters, bringing food and photographs to mark the day of remembrance, mark a place that should be characterised by familiarity by an unnerving, disjointed feeling of all that has been left behind.
Anna describes this ceremony as a result of the characters’ guilt for having left the place when they could not stay any longer; yet behind each character, there is a clear commitment to home and tradition. Where they struggle is that there is nothing really to which they can commit anymore. Many of the characters turn their gaze to the future in order to move on from the past. The ending of the play (which, obviously, I won’t reveal here) provides insight into the many options for ways this may be carried out, but still what is clearest of all is that these people cannot escape their recent catastrophic history – the people that lived there can never be overridden. Where Anna says “I’ve survived their stories” she speaks of an idea repeated throughout the play: that shame overtakes truth in the face of disaster. The idea that the lives of the people who lived there are continually hidden in favour of a promise that no disaster will happen again is prominent. The statement made by Anna, and the play as a whole, posits that this is not the case.
When I spoke to Vanessa Oakes, the writer of All is Well, she described the image that first inspired her to write the play: that of the blackbird that opens and closes all that unfolds in the play. This takes the form of a puppet operated by one of the actors out of character and yet the real significance that we are drawn to understand is the sense that the blackbird, as a symbol of nature, has no choice but to remain in the forest despite its danger. In this way it shares similarities with Anna, but to some extent it’s significance is broader than hers: human action can have effect upon the blackbird but all it might do is persevere, eating the berries despite the risk, protecting what was once its home and calling out amid the silent site of destruction. Above all, it carries on existing. One of the most striking things about the choice of the title All is Well is its grounding in the present; both this title and the piece as a whole have this very stiff-upper-lip sense of determination. What seems to matter in the end is a commitment not just to a simplicity of existence, but to existence in general: to go on and somehow remain hopeful in times of catastrophe. It’s a message that seems chillingly relevant in our own present day.
All is Well continues to the next stage of it’s tour at the mac Theatre in Birmingham on the 12th-13th May. Tickets and further information can be found here.