Opening the National Theatre’s newest venue, The Shed, is Table. A piece of theatre so rooted in materialistic value and generational ownership that it feels almost an ironic choice for associate director and programmer Ben Power to open this temporary space with. The Shed, with its towering red turrets on the Southbank will be fleeting in the history of the National Theatre. Lasting a year, The Shed aims to deliver a selection of contemporary and rough-around-the edges programme of work, or as I see it, work that doesn’t fit the traditional National Theatre model. Though temporary in its structure The Shed is much like its mother The Cottesloe, (currently undergoing work as part of the capital develop of the National Theatre), an intimate space that hums with the close actor/audience relationship, and one that fits Tanya Ronder’s Table perfectly.
Some three years in the making Ronder and director Rufus Norris have worked extensively through development periods at the National Theatre Studio (the development house of the National Theatre) to create a play encompassing one hundred years of a family and their table passed from generation to generation. It is rich with the complexities of family history, a play that bears the weight of time upon its shoulders, but much like the physical table used in the production, it is a sturdy and tactile piece of work. Table feels engrained in the quality that comes from a piece of wood that has been cut, shaped and formed with hands that love and care for it dearly. A testament to the development period the piece has undergone to finally reach a stage to perform on.
Mapping the journey of a single family through time, Table is a sweet and tender kiss of familiarity for the audience. The Best family break bread and make love on the table, they argue and make up, spill drinks and carve their names deep into the grooves of wood. Each mark a point in time, each scratch a moment lost but not forgotten. From hand to hand the table passes, from Lichfield to Africa it travels until present day finds its home in South London. Ronder’s play follows this journey, the to-ing and fro-ing of life, and as the table gets weathered, so too the characters become products of the family before them.
Gideon (Paul Hilton) becomes the spirit of the table, leading through song and narrative the journey of the table. Hilton’s rugged features and gauntness add a particular quality to the enduring time Table represents. Tracing back through the decades we see Gideon as a young adult living in a hippy commune with his mother Sarah (Rosalie Craig), and further back still we see them in a nunnery in Africa, learning Swahili and the ways of God. Back to the origins of the table, three generations before, the depth of character is particularly strong, with a family tree printed within the production’s programme to further emphasis this.
Whilst Table feels rooted in history there’s a playful energy that Norris’ direction provokes from the multi-roling performers. Energy delivered through the child-like playfulness sits beneath the surface of this opaque play. At times there’s some cringe-inducing acting from adult actors playing children, but this is never pushed to the point of despair. Hilton’s stage presence throughout the piece is defiant and grounded; his presence is rooted with calmness, stillness even that adds much to the piece.
Personally Table offered a form of reflection upon my own family tree, a moment to consider those that have paved the way for me to live today. There’s a striking and harrowing moment as Craig’s character Sarah takes a saw to the table, cutting off the legs, attempting to rid herself of the past. Acting as a poignant reminder of the shortness of our lives, often cut short, the branch of the family tree ends abruptly. It is this quality within Ronder’s play that leaves with you, not the journey of the characters within Table, but the reflection upon your own life that makes for a moving production.
A play rooted in time, Table is a piece that presses against the artistic mission of The Shed’s temporary structure. A table being a place for endurance; a document of time and relations; a fitting counter to the National Theatre’s fleeting performance space.
Table is playing at the National Theatre’s The Shed until 18th May. For more information and tickets, see The Shed micro-website on the National Theatre website.