“A tense and deeply disturbing piece”

Emily Lawford is left shaken by 'Orca', an award-winning drama about sacrifice and redemption

Art: Hope Sutherland

“One girl, against the happiness of the whole village. Can you not see it has to be done?”

Matt Grinter’s play Orca, which won the Papatango prize last year, is set in a bleak, tightly-knit fishing village which fears the orcas that inhabit the nearby seas.  Every year, they elect a Daughter to sail with the Father and the fishing boats to keep the community safe, as a ritualistic re-enactment of an old tale of a young girl who gave her life to save her father and the village.

But the present-day ritual contains a dark secret, and the chosen Daughter, who is first wreathed in flower crowns and made to dance with the Father, is no less of a sacrificial victim than her mythical forbearer.  Yet for a small family, outcast from the community, their youngest girl becoming the Daughter is their only chance at reintegration.  Her older sister Maggie, the Daughter of a few years ago, is determined that her sister must not go out with the Father and the boats, yet it is her violent insistence that causes the family to be ostracised from the village.

Max Reynolds and Vicky Robinson have set this play on a traverse stage in the Chapel in Pembroke College, and this dramatic setting, with an altar and a painting of Christ looming in the background, brings to mind the themes of sacrifice and redemption so prevalent in the play.  The lighting is stark and haunting, as are the violins which play simple tunes during the scene breaks.  The traverse stage also allows us a more intimate and intrusive look as we surround the family from both sides, almost like the watchful eyes of the village itself.  However, especially at the start of the play, when the action takes place entirely at one end of the space, the audibility unfortunately suffers and lines and meaning are lost.

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Bella Soames is excellent as Fan, the young girl wishing to be the new Daughter: sweetly enthusiastic and very believably young.  Sofia Blanchard as Maggie is tense and agonised throughout and extremely powerful at the end of the play: however, earlier on her performance was at times a little too subtle which somewhat detracted from the mounting tension of the piece.  Chris Dodsworth’s booming voice and menacing presence are apt for the Father, and he manages to convey a real sense of hidden threat.  John Livesey is extremely watchable as Joshua, Maggie and Fan’s real father, showing his love for his children and desire to protect them, while conflicted by his desire to be respected in the village.  Alexa Mackie is also effective as Gretchen, the Daughter chosen the previous year who has a terrible secret of her own.

The play, perhaps, would have benefited from one more dress rehearsal: especially at the beginning, the actors seemed slightly unsure and it was difficult to grasp what was going on.  But as it progressed, it swelled to become a tense and deeply disturbing piece about the evil that can go unpunished in a small and scared society, leaving audience members stunned and shaken.