Love and Other Acts of Violence – Donmar Warehouse

Cordelia Lynn’s dazzling new play has a jagged beauty and is well served by Elayce Ismail’s production, yet it loses focus at times due to its political ambiguity and its acting

Tom Mothersdale and Abigail Weinstock in Love and Other Acts of Violence

After unplanned then planned closures due to Coronavirus and building redevelopments, the Donmar Warehouse has reopened with its first full-length run of a play in the building since Far Away closed in March 2020. It is emblematic of the Donmar’s terrific recent programming that they have taken a risk on a politically rich and thorny new play from Cordelia Lynn, examining antisemitism, fascism, and the fear of their resurgence. Yet the results are often haunting and challenging, brought to life in Elayce Ismail’s frequently beautiful production.

For most of its runtime, Love and Other Acts of Violence is a sparse, prop-free two-hander, depicting the blossoming, toxifying love of a young couple – Her and Him – who age from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties over the play’s decade span, as fascism sweeps to power in the United Kingdom. This essential form of has been especially common on post-Covid stages, such as in Constellations, Camp Siegfried, or Lungs – the latter remounted as a streaming play by the Old Vic during lockdown. Yet Love and Other Acts of Violence is quite formally different. Its shape is far more varied – punctuated with poetic inserts, and bright, intense lighting. Some moments seem to occur within the minds and bodies of its characters, the stage ablaze with throbbing, passionate reds, while ASMR-like whispers of poetry are intoned from above.

Towards the end though, the relatively simple style is completely overhauled. A moving, surprising, historical final act transports us back just over a century – to the pogrom of Lemberg in 1918. Most of the play is free from stage directions, but the Epilogue demands specific naturalistic detail. The ‘ground-floor apartment’ is filled with ‘the bric-a-brac of life’ and ‘the paraphernalia of Jewish religious practice.’ Lynn’s detail is meticulous, from the wooden dresser to the trimmed beard of the carpenter who made it. In the note on the set, she writes that ‘It should look, sound and smell, suddenly, like Life.’

Naturalism descends on us, quite literally. Bania Bińkowska’s set lowers from the ceiling, with menacing, mechanical, clanking intensity – bolstered by Richard Hammarton’s excellent sound design. We realise that the apartment set has been above the stage – hanging over the characters – the whole time. The contrast between the sparse near-future scenes and the sudden realism concretises the historical violence. Though all of the characters are invented, Him and Her exist on a higher level of fictionality than Baba, Tatte and the soldier – who stand somewhat symbolically for the real victims and perpetrators of the pogrom of Lemberg, and other historical scenes of antisemitic violence. The future, however, is in flux – alarming but uncertain.

Yet there is also a terrifying inevitably in the Her-Him narrative, which ends with Her suggesting that ‘I think perhaps that it was all already written. I think it was written this way.’ The characters both have submerged, largely unknown histories of violence – and thus, Lynn suggests, have inherited trauma. (An epigraph from E. Valentine Daniel reads ‘The violent event persists like crushed glass in one’s eye. The light it generates, rather than helping us to see, is blinding.’)

Earlier in the play, Him and Her discover that they are from the same place, Lviv in present-day Ukraine (known in German as Lemberg). His family were ‘forcibly resettled in Warsaw’, but originally came from the same place as Her, where many her family were killed in the pogrom. ‘Maybe they knew each other’, Him says, somewhat flippantly – not quite registering the fuller context. ‘You’re not Jewish’, Her responds, ‘It’s better in fact […] If they didn’t.’

The Epilogue dramatises such a meeting. On stage, the actors’ doubling and the juxtaposition of scenes tell us that we are witnessing characters whose descendants are Her and Him. The playtext is unequivocal; they are their great-grandmother and great-grandfather. The scene, though short, is shocking and powerful – an eerie quiet tension disrupted by noise outside, which grows to a bombardment of flashing lights and loud gunfire. The Holocaust is inevitably referenced in the play, but there is something deliberate about Lynn’s choice to look earlier in history here. Antisemitism pre-dates Nazi persecution by many hundreds of years, and the Holocaust came after decades of increasing hostility across Europe – of which a snapshot is presented, in the narrative of Baba and Tatte, attempting to survive the threat of pogroms.

In the flat lies the bodies of Baba’s father, Tatte, and her two children, killed by the Man who now sits in the ruins. He is a soldier, tasked with punishing the Jews for allegedly siding with the Ukrainians and against the Poles. He is waiting until Baba emerges from the dresser she has hidden in – a dresser specifically built with a space in which to hide, its use a grim necessity. The Man steals their silverware and as his gun sits ominously on the table, the scene is underlined with a gut-gnawing tension that it could end in a struggle for his weapon. But instead, he tells her that he will spare her life, ‘because your hair is so beautiful.’ But only if she begs for it.

The play concludes with the haunting image of Baba (Her) begging the Man (Him) to spare her life, on his instructions – praying in Hebrew as snow falls from above. It is a striking, horrifying moment. Thus, both survive so that, a century later, their descendants can meet – this unknown traumatic legacy living, festering within them.

Abigail Weinstock and Tom Mothersdale in Love and Other Acts of Violence

The play’s contemporary strand is somewhat knottier. It begins with the two characters at a party, Him shouting over loud music that we can barely hear. (Coincidentally, both Anna X and Camp Siegfried have begun similarly in recent productions. It certainly adds variety and energy to potentially static two-hander scenes, to have the characters forced to shout.) Him is talking at Her about the university they work at. (She teaches physics, while he teaches English.) Specifically, he is talking about their university’s justification of the low wages paid to cleaning staff. The cleaners are not covered by the university’s commitments for fairer pay as they are sub-contracted by an external company. Here, Him is the archetypal man-splainer and -spreader, not realising (lack of self-awareness heightened by inebriation) that he is leaning over her, cornering her and making her ‘nervous’. His critique can essentially be boiled down to an opposition to ‘capitalism’, a word he proclaims as if will make the scales fall from her eyes. The audience laughs – though whether at the political content, the method of delivery, or because they realise that this is his (at least, at first) unsuccessful attempt to hit on her likely varies between watchers.

Some of what he says is clearly ridiculous. His claim that ‘As the son of immigrants and the child of a cleaner I identify with the cleaners’ replaces terms of Marxist solidarity with a politics of identity. Cleaning is not an inherent characteristic or inherited trait, but a social role with a material and financial relationship to the world. To lobby and advocate for their workers’ rights does not require a shared culture or identity.

Yet an interesting part of the play’s gesture is that – though undeniably simplistic and often wearingly communicated – Him’s arguments are essentially proved correct. Lynn seems to be serving a rejoinder to a line of political argument that has grown increasingly familiar: that calling things ‘fascism’ could dilute the potency of the term. Perhaps it could, the play seems to say, but if you do not engage with the idea that egregious government behaviour could be fascist, then you are more likely to end up living under fascism itself.

Her later agrees with his initial assertion that science is hearken to political pressure. ‘Science does not exist in a vacuum. It is subject to the politics of its time’, Him drunkenly rambles in the opening scene. Yet by the end his warnings about eugenics prove horrifyingly prescient (as well as historically literate), and Her defeatedly agrees: ‘‘Back then I felt derisive, in fact what I thought was, He probably doesn’t even know what a vacuum is. […] But you were right.’ She has been asked to teach and research things that are ‘helpfully perceivable’ within government ideology. The laws of physics may be objective, but dissemination of these facts can be curtailed by repressive laws of the land.

The play brilliantly examines the way in which the move from higher education as a vital social good to a product bought and sold has weaponised students as angry customers against unionised university staff. Strike action is now perceived as offering poor value for money. Yet these things are even more concerning because the struggle for better pay and conditions is deeply tied, Lynn suggests, to broader social forces. She argues that the corporatisation of universities goes hand in hand with an erosion of academic freedoms, and even the rise of fascism.

Lynn also suggests an affinity between protesting against antisemitism and class struggle, while also examining how damaging left-wing antisemitism can be. There is a particularly shocking moment when Him asks Her why she is not protesting. (Her is Jewish, while Him is not.) ‘I’ll just fuck right off back to the kitchen where I belong’, he ironically imagines her saying, were her laboratory to ban her from working there. He continues: ‘just fuck off back to the oven where I’. ‘LINE!’, she exclaims, as the audience gasps. ‘There was a line. Just then.’ The line seems to be that arguments against fascism should never utilise its rhetoric or imagery.

Yet Lynn identifies the most substantial material threat to Jewish life as coming from the far right – thus there should be solidarity between anti-fascist protestors and Jews, she suggests. As the Epilogue horrifyingly demonstrates, Jews have had their property seized repeatedly throughout history, their lives interrupted by forced migration. These should be points of solidarity. In the play, Her is privileged; her parents have bought her a flat. A by-product of this is an unfortunate correlation of Jewishness with wealth, yet as the play progresses, her flat is requisitioned by the government, because she is Jewish. Her relative wealth has always had a fundamental precarity.

Though some of the play speaks with an electrifying political clarity, other moments are more evasive. The Her-Him drama ‘takes place over roughly a decade, roughly now’ yet how much it should be read as a direct commentary on contemporary issues is a little uncertain. For instance, some viewers might hold up early scenes where Her is criticised and protested by her students as emblematic of a political interest in ‘cancel culture’ in the play. Her is the target of criticism for setting an exam on the same day as large-scale protests, which in retrospect seem like last-ditch efforts to keep fascism at bay. Him says that she has ‘force[d] them to choose between their education […] their degree, job prospects and fighting for […] basic liberties’. In response, students have started signing a petition for Her to resign and shout ‘collaborator’ at her in the street. Yet is this really intended as a demonstration of the chilling effects on academic freedom of (potentially antisemitic) student activism? As ostracised as Her feels – and the play clearly sympathises with the human cost of organised campaigning, both for protestors and people caught up in it, like Her – the students are far from the most profound threat to academic freedom in the play. The withdrawal of government funding from certain research projects is a far more dangerous form of censorship, and Lynn seems to use the university setting as a microcosm for wider government influence over culture.

Yet where does this all fit into modern Britain? Are comparative examples, such as new government rules proposed this year to protect ‘distinctively British’ public service broadcasting or laws restricting the right to protest, a sign of how far we have travelled down this dark path? The play leaves comparisons to the contemporary world largely to us. Yet this is frustrating when trying to discern the play’s political perspective. The play highlights the police’s position in society and their ability to exercise state power tyrannically on the individual, especially on protestors. Him tells Her, after having been assaulted by officers that ‘I think you’re going to have to finally take on board. Going forward, wherever it is we’re going. That we don’t have a police like you think we have. You don’t have a police. Any more.’ Depending on perspective, the words evoke the historical terrors of the Gestapo and brownshirts, or contemporary police brutality. Yet Lynn’s critique comes in the play once the police have seemingly transformed into state-sanctioned paramilitaries; whether contemporary repressive policing is being criticised is less clear.

The play is a searing warning about how easily nationalism can slide into fascism, with Jews scapegoated and made targets of anger. But it is less successful in offering a clear commentary on the contemporary world. In 2019, I watched Robert Icke’s play The Doctor at the Almeida (a play which should return to the West End next year). It was tautly written and directed with phenomenal precision, yet I wondered if its almost entirely rapturous reception was in part due to its ability to play to different audiences all at the same time. It could be considered a ‘mirror play’, or a ‘Rorschach play’ even, meaning an audience sees in it an expression of their pre-existing political position. As much as we might think we like drama to challenge us, our interpretations can often be intensely guided by the beliefs we already hold – and some plays are particularly pliant to such a Rorschach-like reading. There is an argument that Love and Other Acts of Violence is something of a mirror play – and for me, Him’s description of the police exemplifies this. The idea that the police are not what Her imagines them to be ‘Any more’ implies that the police were once (perhaps even recently, perhaps even now) a force for good. At the same time, a proponent of police abolition would also appreciate the damning critique of their use of force – and the argument that they can serve fascist interests.

Another issue I had with the play was the somewhat unsuccessful presentation of the central relationship itself. As performed here, I did often wonder why the couple were together at all. The script suggests what keeps the couple functioning is an insatiable, intensely bodily need – part-lust, but also an almos gravitational attraction that pulls them together. This inspires their initial meeting, which recovers from his ‘two’-out-of-ten attempt at chatting her up, to his alarming decision to turn up at her house in the middle of the night afterwards. It also explains why they give things another go when they acrimoniously break up. It is a toxic combination that ends in a shockingly visceral fight; the few stage directions in the Her-Him scenes describe how ‘She doesn’t stop kicking him for a long time.’ Yet it never quite comes to life on stage.

The chemistry of Tom Mothersdale and Abigail Weinstock is sometimes passionate and sensual, but is often a little too muted. The relationship is often too confrontational with not enough warmth beneath it all. Mothersdale can have tremendous force on stage, and his appearance in Robert Alan Evans’ powerhouse 2018 Royal Court drama The Woods particularly lingers in my memory. But here, Mothersdale makes his character just a little too belligerent, lacking the poetic smoothness the character has on the page. Weinstock is more compelling as Baba in the Epilogue than as Her, perhaps partly as the contemporary role often merely consists of being a defensive foil to Him’s political truculence. In some scenes, you do feel their need to be in other’s orbits, but if their mutual infatuation was more evident throughout, their journey might feel more compelling. Instead, their mutual toxicity (and, in retrospect, their ancestral history) culminate in Him destroying a carved wooden ram. It is over one hundred years old and survived the pogrom of Lemberg. We really feel the weight of his actions, yet there is something a little too irredeemable about his unpleasantness and cruelty. It is more than an unthinking lapse in love.

Indeed, Him claims that this destruction was motivated not by a sudden loss of love, but by the extent of his powerful love for Her. Were this moment sold a little more convincingly, then the play’s curious central theme of love’s fundamental relationship to violence may have been a little less inscrutable. Him describes his destruction of a ram ‘when we broke up that time’; ‘I loved you so much I hated you so I threw it in the river.’ There is an implicit discussion being had over loving and hateful modes of violence, but I found the acting obscured rather than revealed this peculiar strand of Lynn’s drama.

Where the play truly comes to life is where Lynn leans into her characters’ strangeness, and its these moments that will linger in my mind for a long time. The play startling depicts the way legacies of antisemitism weigh on Jews in the present day – past trauma coupled with an intense fear of a future where violence could resurge. This psychological weight makes a terrific contrast with the play’s interest in Marxist politics – in which material conditions and financial inequality are central. Love and Other Acts of Violence asks, how can a Marxist movement account for the far less measurable psychological disparities between different communities? Lynn does not provide a straightforward answer, but reminds us not to underestimate the toll that history can have on the present.

Love and Other Acts of Violence

Written by Cordelia Lynn, Directed by Elayce Ismail, Design by Basia Bińkowska, Lighting Design by Joshua Pharo, Sound Design by Richard Hammarton, Starring Tom Mothersdale, Abigail Weinstock, Richard Katz, Alexander Fitzgerald, Finley Glasgow, Daniel Lawson, Charlie Tumbridge
Reviewed 6th November 2021

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