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Gabi Spiro attends Bristol PEN’s annual Empty Chair, a play which faces head-on the struggles faced by writers around the world. 

Upon arriving to watch Empty Chair at The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, I am handed a leaflet quoting Margaret Atwood; ‘PEN isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity’. She is quoted by the literary human rights charity, English PEN, who rally for the rights of freedom of speech and expression through literature for censored, exiled, imprisoned and persecuted writers across the globe.

Empty Chair is produced by Francesco Newton and Brenda Callis of the University’s of Bristol’s Bristol Student PEN, Bristol centre of English PEN. All proceeds of the evening are donated to the charity.

Empty Chair is a short compilation play of just under an hour, merging excerpts from the works of twenty-two persecuted writers about their experiences of oppression because of their works.  The chair, the only piece of set in the middle of the stark room, symbolises the place of the silenced author. Through this the audience realises their privilege and the unique experience of listening to the words of poets, novelists, journalists, critics, students and political activists who were silenced until recently.

The actors quote from appalling and shocking pieces, telling the real life stories of jail cells, gruesome murder, forced testimony, labour camps and firing squads

The six actors in Empty Chair, dressed entirely in black, work adeptly with minimal staging and a small area. They tread the stage, which is surrounded on all sides by seating, and speak predominantly in monologue form with ardour and emotion. Ellie Buckingham and Sarah Dean are particularly notable in their believable and committed portrayal of intense human suffering.

‘English PEN [is] a rallying point and a voice for free thought and the free transmission of ideas across borders without censorship or threat’ – Stephen Fry

The audience is warned before the play’s onset of trigger warnings—Empty Chair includes reference or description of rape, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, suicide and torture. The actors quote from appalling and shocking pieces, telling the real life stories of jail cells, gruesome murder, forced testimony, labour camps and firing squads.

Though the tone of the piece is indisputably horrific and sobering, the beauty of the language engages and softens. The combination of biting acting with beautiful and emotive literature works to create a play that affects the audience in a compelling way. While it is often easy—perhaps too easy—to forget the monstrosities which occur in other parts of the world, Empty Chair humanises the figures of modern day oppression.

An introduction PEN International, the work that they do and why it is so desperately needed

To stress the play’s message, Empty Chair confuses and encourages pathos more than it demonstrates a sense of clear narrative. I left the production with an equal sense of horror and bewilderment.

The assortment of excerpts has been compiled by the producers and directors of Empty Chair and works powerfully and dramatically, but lacking the fluidity of a traditional piece of drama.

The play is fast-paced and leaps from passage to passage without introduction and with actors playing various unnamed roles, in a way that is a little distracting. Nevertheless, the raw and intense quality of the play’s content is unaffected—this is not theatre which shies away from its subject matter.

The play is admirable in its intent and its use of a small space and low budget production. Bristol Student PEN succeed in their ambition to broaden understanding and awareness of literary censorship and the unjust treatment of this community of writers. In its own tragic and direct way, Empty Chair is a success, astounding its small audience and enabling important but marginalised voices to be heard.

★★★★

Alongside Empty Chair, Bristol Student PEN do fantastic work throughout the calendar, and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.


What were your thoughts on Empty Chair? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @EpigramArts

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