Nadeem Islam and Shubham Saraf in The Father and the Assassin
Generally speaking, for a theatre equipped with such a muscular infrastructure (physical, in the stage revolves and fly floors, and creative, as Britain’s national theatre), the Olivier has a lower hit rate than one might expect for new plays. The sheer size of the auditorium is a potential struggle; most stories, through little fault of their own, would simply not be big enough to fill the space. Yet here Anupama Chandrasekhar has found the alchemical mixture required, delivering a sharp script which is matched by Indhu Rubasingham’s brilliant production and Shubham Saraf’s bravura lead performance, to create the best new play I have seen in this space.
Chandrasekhar utilises the arena-like quality of the Olivier from the off, with Saraf’s opening monologue jokingly engaging the audience (to the point of exchanging brief, gig-like chat with some stalls-dwellers) and recruiting our complicity. He accosts us: ‘What are you staring at? Have you never seen a murderer up close before?’ Saraf plays Nathuram Godse, a man about whom ‘not much is known’ (by Chandrasekhar’s account in her ‘Note on the Play’), his nervy demeanour offset by a sometimes swaggeringly narcissistic confidence. His claim to notoriety is that, in 1948, he killed Mahatma Gandhi. The Father and the Assassin follows these two characters – Gandhi, popularly known as the father of the nation, and Godse, his killer – weaving their lives together into a complex exploration of radicalisation, colonial occupation, and the ethics of violence.
Saraf carries these weighty themes with a compelling lightness, and the show is so delightful largely because it leans so heavily into comedy, as well as containing moments of sheer weirdness. From the start, Godse mocks ‘that fawning Attenborough film’ with Ben Kingsley – promising to show a stranger and dubiously more accurate version of Gandhi’s life and death, alongside his own. Godse appears to be narrating from some sort of afterlife, where – at the end – he bumps into Gandhi again. He will never be free of the man that once enthralled him, then disappointed him. Meanwhile, Gandhi was barely aware of Godse’s existence.
The play is very interested in the way in which history is inscribed. Godse’s implicit justification for holding our attention and being the subject of a play at all is that he is ‘etched in India’s history’. Yet Godse speaks to his discomfort with the moniker ‘assassin’ – ‘a word that gives the killer a high status because of the one he killed’. Godse prefers ‘murderer’, imagining himself to have gained such a status on merit. The obvious rejoinder is that, of course, his historical importance is bound up in this singular act of murder. The imprint left upon history is, for the most part, not quite so indelible though as the imagery of etching suggests. Indeed, the play stages an attempt – ostensibly by Godse himself – to rehabilitate his actions and reputation, rewriting a history that sees him only as the evil killer of Gandhi, rather than a coherent political thinker. Chandrasekhar cleverly leads us up this fraught garden path, before giving us a firm reminder of who has taken us by the hand.
Her theme is beautifully mapped out in Rajha Shakiry’s set design, the backdrop containing a vast loom in mid-weave which bears down on stage events. The right-hand part is tightly wound, the rest yet to take shape – ambiguously in the middle of being made or possibly being undone. It is a literal reference to Godse’s profession (a tailor), yet it balances the play’s presentation of the production of narrative and history as an ongoing process with the image of nation potentially about to unravel – as partition (in 1947) separates one into two. History is certainly more porous and malleable than Godse’s images of ‘etch[ing]’; the thread may be the same, but it can be stitched into many shapes and patterns by a skilled weaver.
The most interesting gesture of the play is the bait and switch that it pulls close to the interval. Chandrasekhar has written a captivating Godse, interpreted with such tremendous lightness and force by Saraf, and we follow the breadcrumbs of his inchoate political philosophy. The moral bind at the crux of the play is the danger that virtuous non-violence (or ahimsa, as Gandhi called it) will allow any authorities willing to use violence to crush you almost by default. In many ways, it is a debate between Kantian morality and consequentialism, the former sitting uncomfortably with the practicalities of revolutionary social change. Gandhi’s insistence on keeping his hands clean could lead only to more suffering; Godse argues he is giving up without the necessary fight. For most of the first half, this perspective is thoroughly and rigorously considered. The audience seems intended to share Godse’s aching frustration at Gandhi’s ineffectual moments, and though the murder we know is coming never really seems justified, we at least understand Godse’s viewpoint.
Yet his budding political zeal leads him to befriend Vinayak Savarkar, who visits the tailors where Godse works. Eventually, Savarkar begrudgingly agrees to take Godse and his friend Narayan Apte under his wing, preaching revolutionary ideas to them in a way that initially rings with a logic that, if not convinces, at least coheres – dovetailing neatly with Godse’s frustrations over Gandhi’s methods. Yet his ideas start to sound alarm bells with the suggestion that ‘we are too bloody welcoming of other cultures’. Soon after, there is a sudden jolt as we realise the true political ends of Savarkar’s thinking. ‘The Germans have it right. The key to nation building is homogeneity’, Savarkar claims. ‘One culture, one nation. The minority culture must embrace the practices of the majority culture.’ The invocation of Nazi fascism looms as a clear warning about the dangers of pursuing a Hindu nation, without pluralism. The aim is not peace or liberation, but authoritarian policing of identity.
The play is politically searing. It stages issues still discussed in contemporary Indian politics. In 2019, Narender Modi distanced himself from some of his party’s candidates who called Godse ‘a patriot’. Yet it also carries a more UK-specific message about how support for an imposed homogenised monoculture can lead to fascism far quicker than you might expect. The contemporariness is signalled in overt, comic references to the political presence, such as Brexit – with Godse narrating from a distinctly transtemporal and transcendental place – as well as being folded into themes which chime with undeniable relevance. This breadth of scope lends the play a real epic quality, utilising a complex history (underrepresented on the British stage) to tell a sharply contemporary story, while Saraf’s personable style ensures it remains intimate – even as Godse loses our sympathy somewhat in the second half, unable to recruit our support for his more radical, or radicalised ideas. Instead, Godse is sharply upbraided – by his family, friends and Gandhi himself, played with a commanding air of calm by Paul Bazely, on the verge of his murder – for lacking personal responsibility and failing to amount to anything. Fascistic ideas, Chandrasekhar implies, lash out at others in order to excuse the moral and personal weaknesses of the individuals who hide behind them.
A great play is rarely the last word in a conversation but a substantial step forward in a discussion with the baton passed to us by the end. Such is the case here. We are left with a challenge from Godse: ‘A Gandhi is no use to you when tomorrow’s battles are fought with deadlier weapons. No, you’ll need a Godse.’ Godse is never treated wholly as a recurring villain we must repeatedly endeavour to prevent or a necessary instrument of violence, but remains a complex mixture of zeal, anger and narcissism. Yet we should clearly be wary of believing too completely the narrative he weaves.
The Father and the Assassin
Written by Anupama Chandrasekhar, Directed by Indhu Rubasingham, Set and Costume Design by Rajha Shakiry, Lighting Design by Oliver Fenwick, Movement Direction by Lucy Cullingford, Composition by Siddhartha Khosla, Musical Direction by David Shrubsole, Sound Design by Alexander Caplen, Fight Direction by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown, Dialect Coaching by Shereen Ibrahim, Company Voice Work by Jeannette Nelson, Staff Direction by Gitika Buttoo, Dramaturg Emily McLaughlin, Starring Sagar Arya, Ankur Bahl, Paul Bazely, Ayesha Dharker, Marc Elliott, Ravin J Ganatra, Dinita Gohil, Irvine Iqbal, Nadeem Islam, Tony Jayawardena, Sid Sagar, Shubham Saraf, Peter Singh, Maanuv Thiara, Ralph Birtwell, Halema Hussain, Sakuntala Ramanee, Anish Roy, Akshay Shah Reviewed 11th June 2022
Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear – images from the 2019 production at The Bunker Theatre
The infamous bear in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has been interpreted as emblematic of the play’s tragicomedy – murdering one of the play’s most uncomplicatedly good characters (Antigonus) and imperilling the life of a baby, despite being a stage effect with inevitable bathos. Even with a real bear (though there is no evidence one was ever used on the Elizabethan stage, despite the popularity of bearbaiting elsewhere), the sheer unpredictability of placing real animals on stage would be as destabilising as the awkward comedy of person donning a bear costume and shambling after Antigonus in pursuit. Perhaps the stage is not best suited to such visceral, immediate horror.
Yet Eleanor Tindall’s brilliant contemporary monologue Before I Was A Bear does place a bear on stage, drawing on a similar tangle of tones in a hilarious, melancholy story delivered entirely by one woman in a bear costume. Jacoba Williams bursts onto the stage, clad head to toe in bear attire, dancing energetically. The performance’s physicality is suffused not only with dance influences but clowning too. Interludes show her interacting with the world as a bear, adjusting to its difference, challenging physicality. Yet the initial comedy – from Grace Venning’s pantomime-like – steadily turns to frustration and unhappiness as the limits of bear-hood are exposed. Williams marvellously powers the play’s rich physicality, offering a wonderfully dynamic performance which consistently grips and moves us.
Williams plays Cally – named as a deliberate echo of the mythical Callisto, whose story Before I Was A Bear freely adapts. In the myth, Zeus disguises himself as the goddess Artemis in order to seduce the nymph Callisto. The affair is discovery when Callisto falls pregnant, and Zeus’s wife Hera transforms her into a bear in revenge. Tindall utilises the overall shape, updating the myth into a contemporary story of desire and (in)justice.
Zeus here is replaced with Jonathan Bolt, an actor whose meteoric rise takes him from TV detective to film star during the sweep of the play’s narrative, who Cally meets in pub one evening – about a decade on from the height of an all-consuming crush on him. Their conversation soon transforms into a night of passion under a railway bridge, which progresses into an ongoing affair – Cally collecting the miniature toiletries from each hotel they stay in. The affair breaks Cally’s relationship with her best friend and former casual lover Carla, who asks how she could do it knowing that Bolt is married with children. Eventually the story breaks in the press: ‘Love Rat Actor JONATHAN BOLT Linked To At Least Ten WOMEN’. Bolt’s wife, Jasmine, then calmly arrives on Cally’s doorstep and – exactly as in the myth – transforms her into a literal bear. As Tindall writes in the play’s acknowledgments, ‘Thank you to Ovid for the story; sorry that I pulled it apart but that’s what stories are for.’
The play navigates the ethical challenges of a modern-day Callisto from her unique perspective, considering the implications of power. Yet unlike Callisto’s story, which can easily be read as a simple case of double-victimhood, Cally herself feels deeply compromised by her own choices, at least subconsciously. She spends much of the monologue seeking and soliciting our complicity. Cally is constantly appealing to us to share her perspective, winning us over with relatable comedy or direct entreaties to the inevitability of her actions. It’s what any of us would have done, or so we are told. Yet this is also an gesture towards normativity, a logic of rationalisation that is so fundamental to Cally that it even mirrors her understanding of her sexuality. On losing her virginity, Cally says that ‘It’s my first time unless you count a month earlier’. Sex with Carla does not quite count in her mind; the cultural and personal standard is that only heterosexual sex matters.
The show is peppered with bravura comic interludes whose comedy does not so much mask but actually expresses an underlying melancholy. Early in the show, Cally lists all of the London tube lines she has cried on (‘basically every line apart from the Waterloo and City line because who actually uses that’). Foremost among the confessional comedy is the excruciating tale of losing her (heterosexual) virginity to her first boyfriend, Lewis, on his Spiderman bedsheets, which Tindall then spins out into a broader survey of Cally’s sex-life. Aneesha Srinivasan brilliantly choreographs this sequence, using the small, red-trimmed blocks from Grace Venning’s set design to build three small steps. Sex with incompetent men becomes a Sisyphean ascent, in which Cally steps up onto a block and then back down again, over and over.
Cally’s subjectivity is what makes Before I Was A Bear so compelling, yet this conscious one-sidedness has deliberate moral limits. Cally admits to us that she has thought about Jonathan Bolt’s wife – despite lying about that fact to Carla – but she has never considered the potential effect of the affair on his children.
Before I Was a Bear is a rich and multifaceted drama – overtly a story of friendship, obsession, desire and moral uncertainty, while subtly and profoundly exploring sources of injustice in contemporary society. It presents a world (essentially our own, with the Rio Olympics, Channel 4 drama Sugar Rush, and James Bond as touchstones) in which the apparatus of punishment and law enforcement are strong, while justice itself is wanting. Jonathan Bolt’s stardom is redolent of our cop-drenched culture – the ‘maverick’ investigative anti-hero rendered iconic, and subsequently an ideal fantasy. He appears in a darkly addictive Channel 4 drama, which Tindall parodies to eviscerate derivative crime shows with sublime force. It was ‘the kind of show that starts with a dead woman being found in a skip, or bound and gagged in a car boot, or submerged in a lake, or buried under the floorboards by her husband […]’. It is a genre sustained by violence against women – and the fantasy of justice achieved through a male detective’s apparent brilliance in solving the case and catching the perpetrator. In Cally’s world, Bolt is heavily tipped as the next James Bond – another hero whose narratives are powered by litanies of disposable women.
Yet Tindall’s drama searches deeper than the common critique that culture lionises problematic characters and characteristics; these figures have not only been conferred status, but an erotic power too – an ambiguous mix of primal urge and socialised proclivities. To teenage Cally’s delight, the cop show contains vast amounts of sex – often not ‘relevant’ or ‘necessary’ to the plot. Where the gratuity stretches into troubling is when it takes advantage and misuses power, such as in ‘We-shouldn’t-do-this-because-you’re-the-victim’s-sister-but-we-will-anyway sex’. Tindall’s shards of wit draw blood with their perceptive commentary.
Cally ends up on trial in many different ways. She is branded ‘The Worst Kind of Woman’ – a home-wrecking seducer allegedly hell-bent on snuffing out Bolt’s illustrious profile. ‘Oh look’, one internet commenter writes, ‘another whore ruining a talented man’s career. Classic’.
Many shows have rightly identified the misogynistic bind that demands women are simultaneously sexually available and chaste (a modern variation on Freud’s Madonna-whore complex), but few have expressed it as deftly, succinctly, yet complexly as this. The sudden burst of disdain towards Cally is unsurprising – especially in 2022, as MeToo entreaties towards female sympathy (encapsulated in slogans such as ‘Believe Women’) lose traction. Though Tindall updates Callisto’s rape into consensual and enjoyable sex, the play’s implicit consideration of power (and abuse of) is partly built from this hinterland. However, Cally’s sheer humanity in the play creates a sharp sense of whiplash; as we pity her treatment by the sensational press, a feeding frenzy has begun online that feels unspeakably cruel and unwarranted.
The play presents trial by media and then trial by social media in quick succession. Tindall treats the online and ‘real’ worlds with a very porous relationship. The internet is not a space that can be simply switched off – especially not when Cally is named, shamed and doxed by old school acquaintances and hounded by strangers online and off. Spaces of discussion and debate seem more like torture devices, methods of punishment, blame and shame – with no room for justice.
Yet the show is structured around a final revelation of punishment and injustice which finally explains Cally’s bear-hood – which has gone unremarked upon in the monologue, manifesting in the costume and cleverly directed interludes in which Cally tries to eat a bag of crisps and stares longingly at a tupperware of pasta. There is more we do not know about Jasmine Bolt’s ambiguous decision to unleash a very literal and physical punishment of metamorphosis upon Cally than we actually do. Cally wonders if the other women received the same treatment – or just her. Jasmine’s powers are just accepted; they are simply inexplicable. Yet Cally’s transformation is clearly a misdirected and lopsided punishment; she loses her human form while Bolt himself goes pretty much unscathed, announced as the new James Bond with a sense of inevitability. The update exposes the glaring double standard of the myth but also comments on the present reality; male reputations remain unsullied while women suffer.
The implicit question then is about what Cally should have done differently. By her account, she only did what was natural. By Carla’s, she should never have texted him back. Yet the play charts a fascinatingly nuanced course through various ethical imperatives: that of the individualist pursuit female pleasure, a notional duty to society, a duty to protect children. Jonathan Bolt had long been her fantasy, and probably the best sex she has ever had. Some feminists argue that female desire and pleasure are good ends in themselves – that a woman having a personally satisfying sex life, however she chooses, is innately feminist. Before I Was A Bear seems to feel the pull of this point of view, without fully subscribing to it. Sex with Bolt is joyous. Cally even throws confetti in the air to announce: ‘That night I fucked Jonathan Bolt’. It garners a round of applause. Yet in Cally driving away Carla, the play contrasts the excitement with a reasoned meditation on the cost of her choices.
At the very end, Carla returns, bringing ‘industrial-sized bottles of soap and thick cuts of meat’ to tend to the flea-ridden, hungry bear that Cally has become. It offers the closest glimpse of tenderness and care in a play filled with cruelty, something restorative and humanising after Cally’s strange and extraordinary punishment.
Perhaps the play’s central theme is the reduction of female identity to the solely or primarily bodily. Cally has experienced a distorted, complicated relationship with her body; Tindall’s poetic gifts are in evidence as Cally recalls how puberty hits ‘like a big fucking cricket bat covered in spikes and doused in oestrogen’. Yet with it she is perceived differently by men, most alarmingly on a visit to Lewis’s house, during which her boyfriend’s father deliberately exposes himself to her as he leaves the bathroom. Cally feels as if the cause is located within herself, rather than the grossly entitled and exploitative action of a much older man. Yet the play’s ending evokes this bodily discomfort quite literally. Cally is now perceived as a physically threat, and the police are called in as she roams London – leaping in the Thames to escape.
However, the metamorphosis into a bear cannot be reduced into a simple metaphor. It variously evokes Cally’s depression, alienation from her body, cruel and disproportionate punishments visited upon women (though it is far from limited to these things). Before I Was A Bear is a story that cannot be pinned down; it invites us to keep pulling it apart. After all, that’s what stories are for.
Before I Was A Bear
Written by Eleanor Tindall, Directed by Aneesha Srinivasan, Set and Costume Design by Grace Venning, Lighting Design by Martha Godfrey, Starring Jacoba Williams Production Photographs by Tara Rooney (of the 2019 production at The Bunker Theatre) Reviewed 7th June 2022
Sharlene Whyte, Terique Jarrett and Ioanna Kimbook in Daddy
A swimming pool dominates the set of Daddy. It acts as a glittering mirror, a cool space of relief and relaxation, yet it also it fills with bodies, sweat, spit, fluids, and mess. Immaculately designed by Matt Saunders, it is a grand, melodramatic metaphor which befits the play absolutely – representing the opulent, palatial open-plan home in which the action occurs, and the complicated warmth and malice of the play’s dangerous central relationship.
Daddy follows the rise of young artist Franklin, as he meets Andre, a wealthy art collector, potential patron, and (as the frequent and hilariously literal renditions of George Michael attest) substitute ‘Father Figure’. The play opens with Franklin – ‘high on molly’ – dripping wet from the pool, lost in his thoughts and surroundings. Having met Andre at a gallery opening, they have come back to Andre’s place – their simmering, sometimes-troubling, sometimes-affectionate sexual-romantic relationship taking uncertain shape before our eyes. Andre christens Franklin ‘Naomi’, due to having ‘legs like Naomi [Campbell]’, and Franklin will continue to be fetishized, as well as infantilised, as the play goes on.
Daddy is an earlier work than Jeremy O. Harris’s Broadway hit Slave Play (which is yet to appear on a London stage). The plays demonstrate impressive range, with substantially different formal and thematic interests, though there are some fascinating shared preoccupations: the relationship of sex to games, the complication of romantic and sexual relationships by power, history and society, as well as grand gestures in design. (Slave Play’s original setholds up a literal mirror to its audience.) Where Slave Play scrutinises historical trauma in the power dynamics of interracial couples, Daddy adds to this divisions of age and importantly wealth too. Harris seems to view drama as an ideal space to analyse and attempt to draw the line between power’s eroticism, and its tendency towards the problematic or abusive.
Harris has described David Hockney as an aesthetic influence on the play – particularly his 1972 work Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). It was one of many pictures on a mood board in the Almeida’s foyer (along with Hockney’s equally famous 1967 painting A Bigger Splash), and the script’s ‘Note on Style’ instructs the reader to ‘Google’ it. The image of the standing figure (the artist Peter Schlesinger) peering down at swimmer beneath the water seems apt to this play of gaze, longing and looking. There is a yearning in the standing figure, perhaps even a note of melancholy. Daddy dramatises (and inverts) a version of this scene. Now the artist, Franklin, is more often swimming, while being observed longingly by Andre. Yet the painting seems relevant to Daddy not just as art, but as an artefact, tying into a thesis the play repeatedly tests: that art (and possibly everything) loses its value if it can be owned. At Christie’s, in 2018, Hockney’s large canvas set a record for the most expensive painting ever sold at auction by a living artist. An unknown buyer purchased the piece for $90.3 million. Thus, Portrait of an Artist is not only a mirror of the play’s dynamics, or an aesthetic touchstone for its design, but a model of the fraught ownership Daddy interrogates.
Hockney himself is perhaps something of a muse for the play – caught as he is in the eddies and ripples of commercial art. An air of effortlessness pervades his work, from the lightly stylised rendering of the figures and landscape in Portrait of an Artist to his recent work, such as his rather disappointing digital paintings collectively titled ‘The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020’. For some, money has clearly harmed his artistry; Tom Whyman has called this trend in Hockney’s work his ‘Art of Doing the Bare Minimum’, citing ‘rubbish late-period’ pieces including his particularly half-hearted commercial commissions like his low-effort redesign of the logo for Piccadilly Circus station. Whyman contemplates the gesture, suggesting and then rejecting the idea that it mounts a ‘rebellion of the idle’ in reminding commuters that they need not try too hard. Instead, he concludes, it is an ‘arrogant gesture of aristocratic contempt’.
At stake is the position of the artist in society, the play charting both a regression into childhood – in child-like sexual role play and thumb sucking – and a coming-of-age into an adult and artist. Artistic success is arguably compromising though. Late in the play, Franklin clarifies the claim he made early on, arguing that making art on commission, for a gallery or show, feels tainted – compared to making art for art’s sake. Daddy itself was not commissioned; Harris wrote it on spec, and it is the play that got him into the Yale School of Drama – after which it was rewritten and reworked to become today’s version. Thus, it is a play that questions his own idealism – at the start of a career that so far has been extremely illustrious. Patronage is presented as both elevation and destruction – a valid and important historical model (à la the Medicis), or a relic of a bygone age. Franklin is supported financially and given opportunity, yet he is at risk of selling his soul. Harris, however, considers the artist to be inherently powerful. Though Andre has clear material and social advantages, he comes to realise that Franklin’s comments about ownership were not so much social commentary, or even a prediction of his coming infantilisation by Andre, but a ‘warning’ – ‘that if you [Franklin] could get me [Andre], have me, if I would have you, that I would become worthless in your arms’. It was never simply the exercise of Andre’s dominance over Franklin, but a complex mutual interplay of power.
These rich, interpersonal dynamics are handled with aplomb by the play’s leads. Terique Jarrett stunningly captures Franklin’s fluctuations in confidence and uncertainty – self-assuredly opining about Cy Twombly but still clearly an artist in the making. The best scenes in the play are those between him and Claes Bang’s Andre, which crackle with chemistry, mutual infatuation and menace. Bang is probably most familiar to British audiences as Dracula in the 2020 BBC series of the same name (as well as the lead of Palme d’Or winner The Square, also set in the art world), and he conveys a similarly winning mixture of charm and threat here as the suave, ambiguously vampiric art collector. We begin to wonder if Andre collects not just artworks, but also artists. Despite his ostensible power, he feels somewhat incapable when it comes to expressing his deepest feelings. Yet he is also hilariously expressive, such as in Danya Taymor and choreographer Anjali Mehra’s fantastically staged dance sequence, which closes the first act.
Meanwhile, Harris’s supporting characters, especially young wannabe influencer Bellamy, undergo one of my favourite dramatic transformations: a shift from comically superficial and affected to subtly profound. Their affectations are retrospectively exposed as signs of the characters’ richly drawn neuroses. Delivering a speech for the wedding of Franklin and Andre, Bellamy struggles to find the words she needs, alighting on the phrase ‘When it’s summer every day, when even is it?’ Ioanna Kimbook gives the line a devastatingly discontented reading, puncturing the glossily filtered world that she has helped curate, through her posts and their embedded worldview. At the beginning of the text, Harris notes that ‘She has 9.3K Instagram followers’ and ‘She’s quite happy with her own directionlessness.’ By the end, she seems adrift, and we are left not quite so sure. Strong support also comes from John McCrea, as well as Sharlene Whyte as Franklin’s mother – who becomes a commanding presence in the second half, engaged in an unacknowledged power struggle with Andre, as mother and father figures respectively.
Harris’s gleeful determination to deconstruct the theatrical form is in evidence here, though Slave Play’s extended examination of the ethics of play, plays and playing develops this further. Daddy’s disruptions are slightly less assured, yet they reveal a playwright thinking about – and outside of – his chosen medium. Harris has clearly noted the peculiar tension that arises in a theatre when a phone goes off. I recently witnessed the engrossing offstage drama of a man’s palpable relief when a ringtone turned out to be from the phone of his seat neighbour and not his own faux pas. Yet some dramatists are increasingly realising that this miniature ritual of anxiety, shame and judgement will occur both when the phone belongs to an audience member or is part of the play. The jolt of tension created is an arguably unavoidable distancing effect, alienating and reasserting the drama’s fictionality, as the viewer momentarily scrambles to check or remember if they had turned theirs off.
Here, Franklin’s phone repeatedly rings – which is distancing for Franklin himself, pulling him out of his world. Lee Kinney’s sound design melds the distinctive chimes (the iPhone ringtone ‘Opening’) into longer pads, slowing them down and creating alarming soundscapes. Coupled with Isabella Byrd’s lighting, the mood is one filled with potent horror. At the end of the play, we learn that the call Franklin has been silencing is from his father. The anxiety, fear and guilt caused by phones ringing in theatres aptly parallels the feelings evoked by Franklin’s father. It is a neat touch, bringing the play full circle and identifying the major source of trauma in the play. Perhaps Daddy slightly over-resolves itself, and the ending becomes slightly protracted, yet the play remains a hugely engrossing examination of the ethics of art and love.
Written by Jeremy O. Harris, Directed by Danya Taymor, Set Design by Matt Saunders, Costume Design by Montana Levi Blanco and Peter Todd, Lighting Design by Isabella Byrd, Sound Design and Original Music by Lee Kinney, Music Supervision by Tim Sutton, Original Vocal Score by Darius Smith and Brett Macias, Hair and Makeup Design by Cynthia De La Rosa, Choreography and Movement Direction by Anjali Mehra, Intimacy and Fight Direction by Yarit Dor, Casting Direction by Amy Ball, Doll Design by Tschabalala Self, Dialect Coaching by Brett Tyne, Costume Supervision by Olivia Ward, Assistant Direction by Mumba Dodwell, Playwright’s Assistant Raffi Donatich, Assistant Sound Design by Ali Taie, Starring Rebecca Bernice Amissah, Keisha Atwell, Claes Bang, Terique Jarrett, Ioanna Kimbook, John McCrea, Jenny Rainsford, Sharlene Whyte, T’Shan Williams Production Photographs by Marc Brenner Reviewed 1st April 2022
Eileen Walsh and David Walmsley in Girl on an Altar
At a talk she gave, I once heard Marina Carr discuss how she avoids writing chorus parts when adapting Greek tragedy – as they are often quite ‘boring’. It is certainly true that their dislocation from dramatic action is less immediate and engaging for some audiences more used to naturalist realism. Yet what struck me so much about Carr’s superb Girl on an Altar is the way that this free adaptation and extension of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (the first part of The Oresteia trilogy) replaces the chorus with something other than straightforward dialogue. The painful recollection of Iphigenia’s sacrificial death a decade earlier, which is recalled at the beginning of The Oresteia, is no longer a vividly graphic summary (though it remains vivid and graphic) but an introspective deliberation from Clytemnestra, firing the starting gun for her eventual murder of her husband. The play follows in this pattern; each character becomes a filter through which subjective narratives pass, in long, poetic monologues, interspersed with occasional dialogues.
Annabelle Comyn’s direction – which coaxes passion and precision from a hugely impressive ensemble – relishes the effects of these delightfully unreliable narrators. Often the stage action contrasts the dialogue in subtly destabilising ways. Agamemnon’s infamous fatal bath is relocated to a bed on stage, but not in speech. It happens more subtly in narration of emotion; a character might remember a smile that the corresponding actor does not give, for instance. These moments sow subtle distrust as to whose version of events is accurate.
Carr’s dramatic gesture here is distension – opening up the time between Agamemnon’s return and his murder by days, even weeks. The timing is somewhat ambiguous, yet Aeschylus’s observation of the unity of time is purposefully discarded in favour of a passionate slow burn of love and hatred. As in many Greek tragedies, Aeschylus sets the action of Agamemnon just outside the family home, and the fateful cries of pain and anguish are typically heard from within – offstage. Carr instead takes us inside, the marital bed sitting prominently in the centre of the space. As Cilissa remarks, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon need time to ‘grieve and seethe’ in private – rather than the relatively more public scenes of the original Agamemnon. This (ultimately failed) attempt at healing and restitution is exactly what Girl on an Altar stages.
With its intergenerational struggle and murdered kings, The Oresteia certainly has affinities with Hamlet – with Clytemnestra as a far more active parallel to Gertrude, doing the deed herself and remarrying the cousin rather than the brother to maintain power. In this mould, Clytemnestras are often presented as either scheming and cruel, or madly emotional. What Carr does here is essentially to cast her as Hamlet himself – deliberating for two and a half hours over the right course of action as she battles with the complexities of love, anger and loathing she feels towards her husband and his actions. This grieving, seething mix is encapsulated in the blazing performance of Eileen Walsh, whose compelling stage presence communicates effortless authority and searching vulnerability at once. This is an all-time great Clytemnestra that refuses to mute her humanity in any way by dismissing her actions as mad, over-emotional, or self-interested and scheming. This Clytemnestra endures the agony of living with dignity and power, though letting go of her grief is impossible. Meanwhile, David Walmsley refines his take on Agamemnon as the play progresses, brilliantly conveying a mellowing from initial brutishness into a subtler, more sensitive figure choked up with pressure and regret, before he descends once more into irrepressible barbarity.
The title’s indefinite article hints at Girl on an Altar’sunderlying contention – that the horror of Iphigenia’s murder is not only the act of filicide, but the fact it presages a paradigm shift, after which sacrifices of daughters are normalised, even expected. The girl on an altar is in the process of becoming a savagely iconic image. Carr seems deeply concerned by the power of the image on the imagination. Clytemnestra learns that a similar sacrifice was made by Agamemnon in Troy, of Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena – in order that the winds would blow them back home. Drawing on both The Trojan Women and Hecuba by Euripides, Carr has Clytemnestra remark that ‘They sacrificed another girl before they left. […] One of Hecuba’s daughters. They say Hecuba was there.’ The events rhyme but are not identical; Clytemnestra’s spare dialogue rings with her still raw anguish and guilt that she arrived too late to see her daughter’s murder. (In this version, when Clytemnestra arrived there was already sacrificial ‘[b]lood on the stones’.)
The image of the sacrificial girl is potent and contagious, Clytemnestra desperate to stop the spread. She recalls that in the past ‘if a sacrifice was wanted it was a calf or a deer. Now it’s girls. The blood of spotless girls these new gods want.’ Carr situates the play in a world not entirely bereft of women’s rights – albeit within rigid class hierarchies – but where the limited rights women already have are under significant threat. An overtone of contemporariness wafts through the drama, but Carr feels no need to make the parallels explicit. Rather than reproductive rights or healthcare, it is the sacrifice of female children that is the new frontier here, and these killings are emblematic of a regressive renegotiation of the place of women in society. Even the king’s daughter is not safe. Clytemnestra dryly remarks that (for Agamemnon, and Greece as a whole) these sacrifices are ‘becoming a habit’, following the parallel sacrifice of Polyxena. What has been read previously as a concluding tragic echo of the sacrifice that began the war is convincingly situated instead as a continuation of an alarming, misogynistic trend. The play never entirely punctures the divine authority of the gods – though there is perhaps a subtle agnosticism towards the sacrifice’s causation of the winds. Yet Carr absolutely connects the pernicious effects of religious and superstition to violence against women. The gods themselves seem pliable to received wisdom and social prejudices. After all, Clytemnestra emphasises that they are ‘new’.
The danger of images is also apparent in the construction of heroic masculinity. When Agamemnon slays his daughter and dances on the altar, he retrospectively admits that it was as if Hercules was in his blood. We are left to judge whether this gauche celebration stemmed most from peer pressure, the expectations created by idealised heroes such as Hercules, or simple self-aggrandisement and ego – that he, like Hercules, might himself ascend to Mount Olympus and become god-like, if not a god himself. The violent mythical hero Hercules sets an alarming precedent. Hercules too killed family members – murdering his wife and sons in a fit of madness. (This usually is said to have presaged his twelve labours, as atonement, yet in Euripides he kills them on his return.) Carr’s drama is laced with a suspicion of such archetypes – not least the titular doomed girl on the altar, but also the masculine hero, and the mad wife. There is always greater complexity beneath the surface, whether one is a hero or a villain.
A final striking image echoes The Oresteia’s language quite directly. Where Ivo van Hove recently interrogated the social effects of war, violence and anger in Age of Rage, Carr seems far more concerned about the effects of war in private – and most of all, the way gender structures the world. This manifests, upon Agamemnon’s return from Troy, in his narrated decision to reassert control over Clytemnestra through patience, rather than simply dominating her. ‘All flowers bend towards the sun’, he says, foreshadowing his later claim of god-like status. He goes on: ‘She needs the yoke again but I won’t force it yet.’ Agamemnon thinks he is being reasonable, when in fact her is merely advocating a slightly less oppressive form of misogyny than physical violence.
Yet the image of the ‘yoke’ – a crosspiece which was fixed around the necks of two oxen in order to draw a plough – is hugely important in The Oresteia. Agamemnon and Menelaus are called ‘Atreus’ sturdy yoke of sons’, between them driving Greece to military victory. Aeschylus, in Robert Fagles’s translation, makes this image an extended metaphor; Agamemnon ‘slipped his neck in the strap of fate’, in his determination to sacrifice his daughter for military advantage. Yet the image is also replete with submission and control. When placed on the altar – desperate to avoid her screaming – Iphigenia is gagged, bridled. Fagles renders Agamemnon’s instruction as a conscious echo from the chorus: ‘slip this strap in her gentle curving lips’. Here, the horrifying outrage of her death is not only the substitution of a young girl in the place of a ‘yearling’, but the fact that, until moments earlier, it had been Agamemnon in the metaphorical straps. Now, Iphigenia is literally restrained. (This Aeschylean substitution is alive in Carr’s script too, notably in Agamemnon’s metaphorical defence that ‘My hands were tied’ by the army’s pressure on him, met by Clytemnestra’s literal retort, ‘Iphigenia’s hands were tied.’) Carr has Agamemnon claim that Clytemnestra should belong in the yoke – that ambiguous place of both child murdering warrior and female victim. His repressive misogyny is made all the harsher by the echo of Iphigenia’s stifled scream; female voices are crushed into silence.
The play’s structure is perhaps akin to a psychological thriller – a whydunit that simmers with not only hatred and vengeance, but the agony of love. Unlike the original Agamemnon’s dramaturgy of relatively straightforward retribution and descent, Carr’s drama thrums with life in the oscillations. Agamemnon’s decision is now the result of immense pressure, rather than simply the ‘frenzy’ of war-lust; he may have danced upon the altar, but his inner thoughts and feelings are ambiguous even to him. Furthermore, The Oresteia is usually grounded in clear patrilineal trauma (from Tantalus, to Pelops, to Atreus, to Agamemnon – and then to Orestes, in parts two and three, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides). Yet for Carr, it is not only the house of Atreus which is haunted by spectres of violence and madness. Clytemnestra mentions that ‘My mother went mad’ – another intergenerational trauma, amid the traditionally male terrain of inheritance. She even names her child, with Aegisthus, Leda – the same name as her mother.
Clytemnestra’s love for Agamemnon is startlingly complex too. It is sexually passionate, yet warmly loving beneath that – evincing far more than a simple dichotomy of enemies and lovers. Yet they cannot be together without opening old wounds. In a long scene, actually set in their bedchamber, Clytemnestra confronts Agamemnon, eventually coaxing an admission from him: ‘Okay. I killed her.’ This is greeted with a sudden passionate kiss – culpability as aphrodisiac, yet in that admission their relationship might still have a future. Carr’s text, like Aeschylus’s, is largely free from stage directions; the lustful passion between them is brilliantly interpreted by Comyn as intensely physical. Yet it is the fact that Agamemnon cannot bear to remain in this position as an apologetic supplicant that speeds the play towards its bloody climax. Instead, he reasserts his authority and orders Clytemnestra and Leda are sent out to the harem of captive women, where Leda will soon die.
The play, rather surprisingly given the more domestic scope of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, transforms in the second half into a full-blown war play – at least for the male characters. In one particularly exquisite moment of gendered scenography, the women sit around the bed in a tableau of silent, peaceful contemplation, while the men stand tall and bellow military commands. With the captured Clytemnestra offstage, Carr elicits many spinetingling moments from the excavation of the minor female characters. The nurse, Cilissa, originally only from The Libation Bearers, is now a significant figure, as a ‘servingwoman’ to Clytemnestra whose agency and power is frequently examined. In a startling moment, when Cassandra desperately complains that Agamemnon has kept her from her children, Cilissa replies ‘Your children? What about my children? Don’t talk to me about children.’ Kate Stanley Brennan, so often on stage here, unleashes the line as a sudden, flooring grenade, tearing through the drama of the royal household with a reminder of how their violence harms more than just themselves.
Also impressive is Nina Bowers’s astonishing Cassandra. Robert Icke, who staged The Oresteia in a 2015 production at the Almeida, has argued that while the traditional reading that Cassandra is a ‘sex slave’ who Clytemnestra is jealous of is understandable, the play could also be read more sympathetically that Agamemnon is ‘try[ing] to rehabilitate a version of Iphigenia’ – ‘someone who could have been put to the knife and wasn’t’. (She is Hecuba’s daughter – who, unlike Polyxena, survives the fall of Troy.) Icke ensured that the relationship between them was still fraught with a power imbalance and potential abuse yet interposed an additional ambiguity. Carr also complicates the character, refusing often-typical mumbled prophecies and anguished screams, and giving Cassandra the role of narrator; her prophecies are now authoritative. Bowers delivers the play’s haunting final line: ‘And then, as foretold, she comes for me.’ The lights plunge into sudden darkness, with that breath-taking rush of emotion the best plays manage in their closing moments. In this conclusion, the original trilogy’s tragic cycle of murders is leant a new shape. Cassandra is no longer ancillary to the revenge killing of Agamemnon. She is the substitute Iphigenia who Clytemnestra has now killed, and Clytemnestra, in part, becomes what she despises.
Girl on an Altar
Written by Marina Carr, Directed by Annabelle Comyn, Design by Tom Piper, Lighting Design by Amy Mae, Composition and Sound Design by Philip Stewart, Projection Design by Will Duke, Casting Direction by Julia Horan CDG, Movement and Intimacy Direction by Ingrid Mackinnon, Voice and Dialect Coaching by Daniele Lydon, Costume Supervision by Isobel Pellow, Assistant Direction by Jessica Mensah, Starring Nina Bowers, Daon Broni, Jim Findley, Kate Stanley Brennan, David Walmsley, Eileen Walsh Production Photographs by Peter Searle Reviewed 31st May 2022
Beneath the surface of the social realist genre churns an implicit discussion about whether radical art is (or should be) informative, confrontational or transcendent. Is the main aim that the audience walks away and urgently demands socio-political reform, and is that possible? Similarly, is representing poverty on stage going to foster vital empathy, or perversely lull predominantly middle-class audiences into thinking they have done their bit purely by thinking about social problems. These questions seem renewed in an era of social media, where raising awareness and recognising injustice is often mistaken for activism itself – rather than, at best, a first step.
Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Tom Fool, written in German in 1978 and translated sensitively by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, portrays the devastating force that money exerts upon a family, playing on the fault lines of intergenerational resentment and patriarchy. Its undeniable anti-capitalist message is never quite didactic, emerging instead through a pervasive tone of discontent – the aching sense that things do not have to be as they are. It uncompromisingly depicts life under capitalism for those it does little to benefit and implicitly spurs its audience into action – though the drama’s disconsolate, desolate air is partly down to the difficulty of resisting such an all-pervading system.
Previously revived at the Bush Theatre in 2007, Tom Fool seems perhaps more apt now as a tale of a squeezed cost of living, and a family it splinters apart. It focuses on the low-key tribulation of a family of three – with a working father, the mother at home, and the late-teen son Ludwig caught between childhood and adulthood, in a lacuna of jobless inertia. Michael Shaeffer’s patriarch, Otto, dominates the stage, his performance commanding and riven with buried shame. It is a turn which anchors the play too, allowing Anna Francolini to give a quieter, yet utterly compelling performance as his put-upon wife, Martha, victimised by him one time too many. She is the play’s devastating emotional heart. Jonah Rzeskiewicz meanwhile plays Ludwig with a youthful uncertainty about his place in the world, and the actions read by his father as idly disrespectful (lying in bed and skulking around the house) seem more like attempts at hiding from the withering paternal glare of disapproval.
Otto encapsulates Kroetz’s main thesis – that capitalism is ultimately dehumanising – while Martha and Ludwig advance supporting hypotheses about the maltreatment of women and the young respectively (both unable to access jobs in a system where work defines worth). Kroetz’s most searing critique is of the dehumanising effects of automation. While left-wing, anti-capitalist writing about automation has always been somewhat conflicted (between the positives of eliminating the need for dangerous, exploitative and inefficient labour, and the negatives of increasing profits for owners while eradicating working class jobs), Kroetz homes in on the human cost above the economics. Automation is not a debate about efficiency or wealth redistribution, but a battle for the soul of the worker. Here, it is not the car industry which has been automated. Instead, the human workers themselves have been reduced to machines, in an Adam Smith-like vision of streamlined ultra-efficiency. Otto, a semi-skilled worker, is in charge of the screws that go into a car door and window. Yet this is not a triumph of specialisation, but a psychologically destructive separation of worker from output.
Though Otto’s job here is specific to German industry – and particularly to the late-20th century too – for Kroetz, I doubt this matters too much. Otto’s work conditions function as a metaphor for capitalist employment as a whole, which he contends is inherently unfulfilling. Kroetz mirrors Otto’s profession in his hobby – building intricate model gliders. They are made according to his vision, and he is responsible for every part. Perhaps this is less efficient, but the connection between effort and output is enriching, even joyous. Interspersed in the play are scenes where Otto works on his glider or embarks on test flights. He narrates his actions, even pretending to be an interviewee on a German radio station – greeting his own aggrandising introduction with a gentle faux-modesty, conceding that everything he knows about glider-making is something he has taught himself. In some versions, especially given his cruel streak, these scenes could be directed to mock Otto – charging him with a narcissistic, delusional streak perhaps. Yet Zora locates in them a private spark of joy. These are the key to sympathising with the play’s difficult lead.
Otto is both a tragic protagonist and a comically absurd creation – penny-pinching to the max and regaling his wife with long-winded anecdotes about the price of a restaurant meal, or the whereabouts of a fountain pen, borrowed by a higher-up at work. On stage, his mania is strangely compelling. To live with, it would be exhausting. Kroetz heavily implies that his obsessions with money come as much from a desire to assert power and authority, as much as from a fear of poverty. Capitalism has infected life absolutely, every moment of generosity fiercely bounded with financial caveats. Out with the family at a pub, the father offers his son another drink. ‘A pint?’ he asks. He is allowed a half and reprimanded for being cheeky – even though a scene later the father is opining about a half’s relatively poor value for money.
Though Otto feels dehumanised by his job, the alternative – not working – carries a profound sense of shame, which manifests in his borderline abusive treatment of his son. Ludwig is caught in a depressive eddy of unemployment, lacking the qualifications and social opportunities to pursue a career which would satisfy his parents. His attempts to become a bricklayer are shouted down by his father, yet Otto is also quick to ridicule his son’s apparent indolence and tells him to ‘go out and earn some money first’, before doing anything enjoyable. Otto is motivated by a powerful resentment, that his son might not have to suffer the way he does, yet this attitude ascribes a moral value to labour itself and reinforces the capitalist system.
The first half, in brief staccato scenes, slowly escalates Otto’s resentment and powerlessness to breaking point. When 50 Marks go missing – stolen by Ludwig to buy a ticket for a rock festival – Otto explodes in rage, strip-searching his son and expelling him from the house when the money is not found. The rage continues to bubble up, now directed at Martha, and, in a heart-stopping scene just before the end of the first half, Otto loses control completely. He deliberately spills some of his beer on the floor, a move rendered shocking for its sheer wastefulness – that Otto would normally condemn. Then he quietly smashes the bottle on the floor. Then he unleashes a burst of pure rage; he upturns the dinner table and a dresser, puts his foot through the television and empties out the pot plants’ soil. Martha watches on, the actions a deliberate attempt to intimidate her, infringing on a space that is implicitly hers. When Otto first pours out his beer, she immediately goes to clear it up; the gendered division of their domestic labour has been clearly established long ago.
The most striking part of Kroetz’s text is the scene that follows. Together, in near-silence, Martha and Otto clean up the mess. It takes at least five minutes, and Diyan Zora brilliantly insists on verisimilitude. The fact that the scene leads into the interval would allow the cleaning to be approximated or cut short – left as a task for stagehands, while the audience pops to the loo. But Zora plays the scene with a powerful realism that wordlessly communicates guilt, blame, apology, fear and even acts as a form of catharsis. For Otto, perhaps it is even that – joining his wife in cleaning up – he is truly able to release the pent-up emotion that caused his violent outburst. Yet it is now too late to save their marriage.
Realism and naturalism are usually about simulation. By evoking what Lyn Gardner describes (in her review of the 2007 production) as the ‘tedious minutiae’ of daily life in a ‘hyper-realistic style’, we gain a different an insight and understanding that we would from the more contrived mechanics of standard plot-drama. Sometimes, ‘real’ plays cut to the heart of the matter by announcing the limits of their reality from the start. Alecky Blythe’s beautiful verbatim play Our Generation (which recently played on the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage) begins with a projected acknowledgement of the play’s real dialogue, though character details and names have been changed. There is always a limit of some kind; theatre is not life. Actions happening onstage are not the same as those offstage.
However, there is something about the act of cleaning specifically that pushes against the limits of realist simulation in theatre. Annie Baker’s 2014 play The Flick centred on three cinema employees, whose jobs included the ‘walkthrough’ required after every screening. It is something that happens in theatre too; the auditorium is checked for rubbish (or lost property) and cleaned up. Baker places scenes of cleaning on stage, yet – making no concessions to theatrical brevity – she sets many of these scenes in near-total silence. Baker is faithful to the duration of actual cleaning work and has the actors sweep prop popcorn off the cinema carpet. Yet Baker honours the social awkwardness of her characters too; they may not know what to say to each other, but the work needs to be done. Thus, it plays in silence. At one point, one of the two cleaners does not show up for work, so the other has to do the walkthrough on their own. Realistic as ever, Baker plays the scene entirely without dialogue, while the cleaning ends up taking twice as long.
Cheating this onstage also becomes difficult. An audience might play along if a character pronounced a messy set as pristine, but the play would lose any implicit claims that it was presenting life exactly as things are. Therefore, writing mess into a play – especially mess that needs to be cleaned up – introduces a sudden loss of control. The Orange Tree seats its audience on the same level as the stage, fairly close and in the round. As a result, there are inevitable concessions to safety (and economy). The dresser is presumably fitted with shatterproof Perspex, so its ‘glass’ does not break when overturned. If you squint, you can also see that some of the bone china ornaments are surprisingly robust. While the beer bottle is (presumably) made from safety glass, it shatters into small pieces across the stage and will take far longer to clear up than it does to make the mess.
Ultimately, this compellingly understated scene seems pivotal in Kroetz’s contemplation of the mechanised industrial worker. Technically precise social realist acting is arguably fraught with potential for a similar mechanical reproduction – though embodying a character is obviously far more varied and holistic an act that than bolting the same set of sixteen screws into a Volkswagen’s door. Yet, hewing to an exact, hyper-realistic mode could threaten to reduce the actor to an instrument. Here though, they clean up an unpredictable mess, in a way that cannot be mechanically reproduced – requiring a heightened responsiveness and adaptability. The actor is not a mechanical part of an industrialised process, their physical actions not preordained or choreographed with quite the same exactness. There is a higher form of realism in its randomness.
It is also a scene which defiantly, though silently, asserts the value of Martha’s work – puncturing Otto’s self-constructed mythos of himself as the family’s sole provider. In his view, he is the worker of the family, but seeing the effort expended at such length in clearing up his mess powerfully demonstrates that housework is a form of labour. When the room is finally returned to a semblance of normal tidiness, Martha flatly remarks that ‘that needed doing.’ Kroetz lends her a subtle power and decency in this grimly comic punchline, yet it also speaks to an internalised set of domestic and marital obligations. It is a terrible indictment of this family, and society, that her default reaction is simply to start cleaning up her husband’s mess.
Otto’s character is a synthesis of many archetypal tragic flaws. He is proud and hubristic – even ceremoniously placing a paper crown atop his head – cruel and dominating to his family, and quick to anger. Yet, unlike traditional tragic tyrants, he lacks the social standing to make his outbursts more than implosive, harming his closest loved ones – but above all himself. This seems epitomised by his final act when he trashes the flat; he snaps the wing off his beloved glider. A lot of his anger is really aimed inwards. The mother and son bond, finding ways to support each other in the second half, yet Otto never really recovers.
At stake in Otto is the humanity that he seems to lack – which Kroetz squarely blames on oppressive social forces, though without neutralising the much-deserved scorn accorded him by Martha when she walks out. This humanity has been utterly crushed out of him by his work. Kroetz even ironically titles a short scene in which Otto tries and fails to masturbate ‘Being Human’. Even sex has been tainted by its association with money. Otto solicits a prostitute but finds he is physically unable to go through with it, so he asks for his money back. His request is refused. Kroetz’s main critique appears to be that something natural and human has been perverted, rather than engaging in any more detail about the social causes and labour of sex work. Instead, it registers as a sin committed – in weakness – against the family, for which capitalism is ultimately to blame.
The play ends – like many dramas of its genre – without any particular resolution for action, though with the slightest glimpse of hope. ‘He’s got to do the same as us. Learn’, Martha says, in the play’s final line. It lands both as a fitting inward reflection on the family’s situation and a profound diagnosis of a society in stagnation. It also defers the issue of solving social problems from the artificial world of the play to the real world outside of it; we too have to learn, fashioning a happier ending through improved conditions and social reform. Thus, Tom Fool inclines towards the grimmer, bleaker end of social realism, which attempts to weaponize audience discomfort as a tool of social change. Its effectiveness as a genre is up for debate, but this staging is undeniably a profoundly affecting drama, its characters aching with life.
Written by Franz Xaver Kroetz, Translated by Estella Schmid and Anthony Vivis, Directed by Diyan Zora, Design by Zoë Hurwitz, Dramaturg Jennifer Bakst, Lighting Design by Christopher Nairne, Sound Design by Joe Dines, Movement Direction by Chris Evans, Intimacy Coordination by David Thackeray, Casting Direction by Christopher Worrall, Voice Coaching by Emma Woodvine, Costume Supervision by Rebecca Carpenter, Deputy Stage Manager Anna Hunscott, Assistant Stage Manager Eavan Gribbin, Starring Anna Francolini, Jonah Rzeskiewicz, Michael Shaeffer Production Photographs by Richard Davenport Reviewed 6th April 2022
Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler played on National’s Lyttelton stage to considerable acclaim in 2016, so the news of another collaboration between the garlanded director and lead Ruth Wilson sets high expectations. Unfortunately, this production of Jean Cocteau’s often-adapted 1930 monodrama struggles to fulfil them.
Like their Hedda, also designed by Jan Versweyveld, The Human Voice plays in a near-empty void of white space. Hedda Gabler’s set had the sparsest furnishings of a modern home, punctuated only with a few objects of either essential function or immense significance (a gun, flowers, an upright piano). The Human Voice pares things back even further. Wilson is placed into a vacant white box, which she sometimes brings props into, yet unlike before the effect is not of a gaping emptiness, but a claustrophobic, restrictive container. We see Wilson only through a window, so she is letterboxed in widescreen, hemmed in, her suppressed emotions soon filling the space. She seems trapped behind the glass – like it is a petri dish, a display case, or even as if she is under the slide of a microscope. Yet despite Wilson’s best efforts, this suffuses an air of cold, scientific sterility into the play’s atmosphere.
Peering through the glass, there is an inescapable and palpable sense of voyeurism, and surely van Hove knows this. However, he does little to challenge us or problematise our presence. The show casts us as curtain-twitching onlookers across the street – or from another nearby tower block. (We realise that here she is high up once she jumps to her death.) Yet we hear her only down the telephone, almost as if we are her lover – hearing her often ASMR-like amorous overtures down the phone, flickering in an instant between dismissive and desperate. Thus, we are both sought out and blamed.
Perhaps the ethical complications van Hove seeks to entertain are stymied by the unfortunate fact that the show offers fairly few theatrical pleasures. Though fans of Wilson will relish the chance to see her on stage again, the production is languorous and lacks energy. Were we really gazing in through her window, I doubt we would carry on watching. Though running at only 70 minutes, the sheer aesthetic austerity of the play – a deliberate reflection of her mental state though it is – tests one’s endurance a little. The greatest variation comes from the terrific sound design, the lighting swelling from cool white to a pungent yellow, or the occasional opening of the window. Any attempt to goad us into guilt about what we are watching would rely on us being problematically riveted, rather than somewhat indifferent.
The main source of life in the play is music – some diegetic, some as additional soundtrack. At the start of the play, she listens to Arlo Parks’ ‘Hope’, with its recurring refrain ‘You’re not alone, like you think you are’. As a statement on how technology connects, it seems logical, while it also creepily suggests our presence as the voyeuristic audience. It also foreshadows, with tragic irony, the woman’s eventual lonely fate. Later, her melancholy is telegraphed by the onset of Radiohead’s ‘How to Disappear Completely’ – a gently meandering ode to dissociation, which is actually one of my favourite songs. Yet even so, here it felt like an underearned attempt to overlay emotions that we were not quite feeling – largely due to the alienation built into the design, rather than Wilson’s acting.
The track recurs through the play, its first use the most creative – though the third and final (near-complete) playthrough is the most artistically daring. Wilson plays music on her phone, dancing to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ – another song laden with an ironically literal relationship to the drama. Yet Radiohead fades in and eventually drowns it out. The music is implicitly internal – reflecting her true state of lifeless, out-of-bodily sadness. However, the effect seems too deliberately composed and imposed, a shortcut to emotion that does not fully satisfy. The third time ‘How to Disappear Completely’ plays, Wilson sits inertly against the back wall. She does not move a muscle for a full four minutes, in a daring gambit. Yet, by this point, even a track as liltingly beautiful as this one has started to feel cheapened and overused.
At the play’s conclusion, when Wilson’s character dons an electric blue evening gown and pulls open her apartment’s sliding window to jump to her death, van Hove and Versweyveld’s sudden plunge into darkness is almost immediately interrupted by a blast of Miley Cyrus’ song ‘Wrecking Ball’. The choice is downright bizarre and feels crassly misjudged, disconcertingly dissonant with the play’s previous aesthetic of beige severity. It feels like a glib reaction to a woman’s suicide, especially when she acts not out of an excess of passion and spurned rage (as in Cyrus’ lines ‘I never hit so hard in love’ and ‘All you ever did was wreck me’) but out of a slump into deep depression.
In the scenes leading to her suicide, van Hove transposes some of Cocteau’s phone-bound dialogue into a direct audience address – which reaps some of the most effective moments of the evening. ‘I am suffering’, she tells us, and it is as if she is pleading for empathy – rather than being the subject of scrutinised, distant sympathy. She even says she knows it is difficult to keep listening. Afterwards, I wondered if many of the effects of the production are deliberately designed not for in-person thrills. Perhaps instead this version of The Human Voice should creep up on you later on. A couple of weeks on from seeing it, I find there is some truth in this, but there is so little stage action to hold on to that the specifics of the production do slide from your memory. Arguably the small creative team of van Hove, Versweyveld and Wilson are trying to show the difficulty of catching someone before they fall into depression – that such experiences (both for the sufferer and the attempted provider of support) are tiring, exhausting and sometimes even dull. In this production, as much sympathy as Wilson makes us feel, you can understand why answering the phone to her character becomes difficult – despite her pleas to be heard.
It does not help that we are so remote from her that the action fails to recruit much more than general sympathy. She is pitied rather than mourned because we rarely get the chance to ache with her. Suffering is the spectacle here; she has been placed here for our amusement, but it is not quite compelling enough for us to feel guilty about watching. In light of this, her death almost seems like she is opting out of the drama itself – realising there is no way to transcend the stage-box she has been trapped in, but that perhaps that she could deprive her observers of the ability to study her pain.
Though The Human Voice seems perfectly positioned for a free adaptation that grapples with the human cost of lockdowns, this version feels too generic, and too disinterested in the theme of isolation itself. Though the play has been advertised with the tag line ‘We’ve never been more connected. We’ve never been more alone’, we are not invited to share the woman’s plight, just to watch it – in a way that would be problematic, if it was more compelling.
The Human Voice
Written by Jean Cocteau, Adapted and Directed by Ivo van Hove, Design by Jan Versweyveld, Starring Ruth Wilson Production Photographs by Jan Versweyveld Reviewed 25th March 2022
Shakespeare’s war drama Henry V has on various occasions been programmed, staged and filmed with a calculated and deliberate geopolitical message. In 1944, late in the Second World War, Laurence Olivier’s patriotism-drenched film version cast Henry as a brilliant military leader enjoying a deserved triumph over the French. That the French had become allies did not stop the sentiment, and the film was even dedicated to British soldiers ‘whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture’. More recently, the National Theatre’s 2003 production was received largely as a strong, satirical critique of the UK’s involvement in the Iraq War, treating Henry’s invasion as largely unjustifiable, paralleling British and American military action. Yet in this new, just as timely production, the resonances are shockingly coincidental, yet startling to watch.
Max Webster’s stirring staging echoes the combat fatigues and gritty violence of Nicholas Hytner’s Iraq War critique, yet Webster leans far more into the play’s notorious ambiguity, rather than espousing the clearly ‘pacifist leanings’ Michael Billington identified in 2003. This is not to say that Webster presents war as anything less than a nightmarish horror, which is intensified by Fly Davis, Carolyn Downing and Lee Curran’s terrific design (of set, sound and lighting respectively). Yet Webster’s nuance is slightly, and unavoidably, blunted by the shadow of world events which hangs across the play – obvious long before Kit Harington’s curtain call address, in which he notes that Henry V is a play about invasion, before asking the audience to spare some change for the humanitarian relief effort in Ukraine.
Shakespeare’s depiction of the cost and violence of conquest grimly mirrors Russia’s ongoing attempt to invade Ukraine. This run was announced in mid-2021 and the invasion began a fortnight into its run – though the growing prospect of conflict surely hung over the rehearsal period – so its staging is only a tragically apt coincidence. Thus, there are not direct references made in the play itself. Instead, this already electric staging flickers with a palpable unease, that while the stage is filled with impressive military choreography (from fight director Kate Waters, movement director Benoit Swan Pouffer, and with additional guidance from former Royal Marine Commando Tom Leigh), this is happening for real elsewhere. This is merely a ‘wooden O’, in which war is simulated.
Millicent Wong is terrific as the Chorus, implicitly justifying the role’s presence in the play. (Such a persistent narrator is unusual for Shakespeare.) Yet the infamous apology for the limitations of the stage that opens Henry V seems less necessary than usual. The production inclines to bombast (incredibly effectively), with guns, military manoeuvres and the ever-present sound of circling helicopters. There is no need of ‘imaginary forces’ – Shakespeare’s pun describing mental faculties and pretend armies – when the production depicts semi-realistic modern warfare before our eyes. And yet, scenes of war are now so present on the news, it also seems obvious to suggest that theatre is inadequate in depicting it.
Norman Rabkin famously compared Henry V to drawing of an animal, variously seen as either a rabbit or a duck. Most people can see both at will, mentally switching between the right-facing rabbit and the left-facing duck. However, no matter how hard you try, you cannot see both at once. In Rabkin’s reading, the character of Henry and the moral justifications for the war are like the rabbit-duck. Henry is either a heroic leader of one of England’s crowning military triumphs, or he is barbarous example of the brutality and folly of war. (As the Chorus reminds us at the play’s conclusion, Agincourt’s gains will be lost under Henry VI.) For Rabkin, this ambiguity is to be relished rather than resolved. ‘Mystery is their mode’, he writes, of Shakespeare’s ‘great plays’; ‘the questions aroused by them seem unanswerable’. Thus, to direct Henry V is to either decide on a reading or attempt to embody this tension – leaving the play functioning as a moral challenge for its audience to decode.
Webster strikingly leans into the latter, though it is even more difficult to harbour sympathy for a violent invader now than usual. In this production, the play seems deliberately structured as a series of moral tests. Is Henry admirably ruthless in his determination or a perpetrator of undue, merciless cruelty? In an attempt to bolster the presentation of Henry as a person in his own right, rather than the politician or war leader he appears as in most versions of the play, Webster lifts from Henry IV Part 2 to craft a new opening sequence, in which he is decadent and wayward figure. The Chorus’s Prologue ends with the onset of pounding music, Henry staggering onstage in a stained office shirt, enjoying Bullingdon Club-esque hedonism, and vomiting in the middle of the stage. It is swiftly cleared up, but the smeary remnants glisten under the lights for the next eighty minutes until the interval. Soon he is thrust into power by the death of his father (Henry IV). Yet though he suits up into a suddenly more respectable, disciplined leader, the loutish behaviour lingers in the mind.
The first true test comes in Act 1 Scene 2 of the original Henry V, beginning a trend in Webster’s drama to retain and spruce up the more intractable monologues, rather than simply cutting them. This does make for a long show (over three hours in all), especially given the addition of the opening, yet Webster’s directorial innovations and interventions are compelling and hugely effective. Here, in one such flourish, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s rather turgid explanation of Henry’s claim to the French throne is delivered via PowerPoint presentation. In a neat inversion of the usual audience slump, the characters on stage are visibly bored – yawning, sighing and even swearing when he adds reason after tenuous reason for Henry to stake his claim. Instead, we laugh at the tortuous logic and spider web of a spider web of a family tree, shown in Andrzej Goulding’s superb video projections. That Henry can be convinced by this seems surprising though, and it even grimly evokes Putin’s thin justifications for supposedly ‘liberating’ Ukraine. Henry’s actions are, of course, predicated on an argument about monarchical legitimacy that ignores how the French would self-determine their own nationality.
Henry sits quietly in this scene, epitomising that much-coveted, but nebulous quality of statesmanlike-ness. He has gained authority from his sudden promotion, though perhaps his rigid, silent demeanour is also that of a man still trying to sober up. For all the production’s tendency to overwhelm, Webster plays these subtler moments well; Henry’s power is demonstrated by the simple fact that he is the only one with a chair. After surviving the archbishop’s presentation, Henry is persuaded – calling on ‘God’s help’ to speed their victory, though really it is the vast pledge of church money in support of military action that has tipped the scales for the King. At the end of Act One, Henry is presented with a provocative gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin, an insult to Henry’s ‘youth and vanity.’ Yet you feel the ethical cogs whirring in Webster’s drama; they are derogatory, yes, but are they really an acceptable justification for violent incursion? Yet, Harington explodes with rage, and you feel that ‘chid[ing] this Dauphin at his father’s door’ is hugely understating his aims.
The first half proceeds with a measured pace, next testing Henry with the revelation of the Earl of Cambridge’s plot to assassinate him. The dramatic irony hangs thickly in the air as he tricks them into signing their own death warrants. He tells them of a man who, in drunken excess, ‘railed against our person’. Yet he proposes merciful treatment and allows the plotters to argue against leniency. Accomplice Scroop insists ‘Let him be punished, sovereign, lest example / Breed by his sufferance more of such a kind.’ All three betrayers are in agreement; a King must be feared as well as loved, cruel and kind. Thus, Henry presents them with papers, detailing their own treasonous crimes. When they make their inevitable pleas for mercy, Henry simply gestures to their own hypocrisy. Harington plays Henry here as a clever schemer, his lines half-test, half-trick – playing on the public loyalty everyone must show to him in making them argue against clemency. Shakespeare implicitly questions Henry’s actions; are they start of a slippery slope towards the cruel and dictatorial, or the actions of a just King, only hanging them with their own rope?
This question is, horrifyingly posed again before the interval, when Bardolph is hanged for alleged stealing from a church. While Henry is theoretically upholding a moral standard, in staking a dubiously rightful claim without unnecessary violence or larceny, Webster plays the moment as a grimly mechanised public spectacle – displaying Henry’s swollen power for all to see. Henry watches remorselessly as her body twitches above Donmar’s stage, even though Webster’s additions from Henry IV Part 2 show his youthful friendship with Bardolph, suggesting perhaps that they might have been lovers. There is a potent sense, by this point, that Henry might have gone too far – the killing sapping the morale of Henry’s old Eastcheap friends, Pistol and Nym, and even threatening the customary comic subplot’s mirth.
John Sutherland and Cedric Watts famously place Shakespeare’s Henry on trial in Henry V, War Criminal?, ascribing him that anachronistic moniker, though it has an important partial echo in the original text. After Henry has decided to execute the French prisoners of war, Welsh soldier Llewellyn objects as it is ‘expressly against the law of arms’. Webster slightly updates the phrase to the ‘rules of battle’ – a deliberate shift away from codes of chivalry, respect and fairness, towards modern concepts of human rights and conventions of war. This decision to contravene these rules is the clinching piece of evidence for Sutherland and Watts – as it was in a 2010 mock trial Washington, D.C., which included Supreme Courts justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, where they unanimously found against Henry in the matter of executing prisoners. It is the darkest moment of moral testing in the play, and Webster makes it look for a brief moment like Henry has caught himself in the midst of his tyrannical violence and might retreat from it. Yet instead, defiant of his soldiers’ reluctance, the king graphically slits the throat of one of the prisoners before restating his order. Webster places blood firmly on Henry’s hands.
Yet even amid this horror, there is the rabbit-duck of admirability in amongst the violence. As much as the throat-slitting is a horrifying signifier of just how far Henry has gone, it also, rather perversely, shows him to be a man who leads from the front. He never expects his soldiers to do something he would not be willing to do himself. Henry even skulks covertly around the camp the night before battle, attempting to boost morale. By contrast, the Dauphin avoids the actual fighting, but is still rewarded. Despite the scepticism towards many of Henry’s actions in Shakespeare’s text, Henry’s victory comes through effort, while the French are far from sympathetic victims.
A crucial point after Henry’s victory is his confrontation with Michael Williams (here, one of many gender-swapped roles, like Bardolph). During his night incognito, Henry ends up embroiled in a rather contrived dispute, which leads to the promise of a delayed ‘box on the ear’, if he were ever to come up to her and say, ‘This is my glove’. Of course, Henry eventually does so, prompting immediate terror from Williams as she realises her jest of a threat is now treasonous. Yet Henry pardons the soldier, despite an ominous sense that he might turn against his own army into a completely tyrannical autocrat, more in the vein of Richard III. Instead, Harington’s features crease with warmth and he good-humouredly demands that her glove be filled with money. The stage devolves into a wild party, with drinking, dancing and the blasting underscore of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’.
In Shakespeare’s text, this could be read as a pivotal moment of transformation in Henry – the point at which he looks over the precipice, but without falling (as many others have done in the rise-and-fall de causibus tragic form, found variously in history plays such as Richard II and Richard III). A structural reading would align Henry V’s conclusion with the genre of comedy – ending as it does with the wooing of the King of France’s daughter, Katherine, and the promise of their marriage. Yet, typically, Shakespeare infuses a rich ambiguity in these final scenes, a gift to directors (like Webster) who wish to take a more sinister interpretation.
This production treats the awkwardness of the play’s comic resolution as the last of the play’s moral tests, one which – for me – Henry completely fails. Though attempting to be amorous across the language divide, Harington soon turns off Henry’s charm. He is brokering a military deal, as the victor, and as a result his requests are actually demands suffused with a threat of violence and destruction. There is no way that he could straightforwardly court Katherine’s affection. Anoushka Lucas is a standout as Katherine, playing her with a steely determination and wringing as much pathos as possible from her character’s hopeless situation – despite the limitations of the relatively small role. In this staging, the fairly early play Henry V seems to foreshadow the dark undertones of The Winter’s Tale’s resolution (and those of the other late plays), in which the (seemingly) resurrected Hermione does not directly forgive or even address her husband Leontes, whose groundless accusations of adultery led to her apparent death. Leontes hurries everyone offstage before the potential powder keg of unspoken feelings can detonate – and perhaps lead to further tyrannical violence. As with Henry V, Shakespeare’s language denies us the happiness we might expect from the marriage plot’s structural comedy.
Henry V is the third biggest role in Shakespeare – both by raw line count and percentage of the play’s dialogue (32%) – yet I was struck by how small the role felt here, especially in the first half. Kit Harington is cannily cast; of course, his presence will sell tickets, yet he also exudes a quiet celebrity, which fits this interpretation of Henry as a slick-suited, potentially populist monarch. Though Andzrej Łukowski contends in his Time Out review that this production ‘approach[es the play] as a great character study’, I was left with the quite contrasting sense that the play was asking us to judge – as the public, perhaps even as voters – whether we found the King and his actions justifiable, ethical and moral. The frequent projections of Harington’s face on the back wall serve a powerful sense that he is a national leader whose inner thoughts remain largely inaccessible to us. Henry here almost seems like a new take on the Chorus’ invocation ‘Into a thousand parts divide one man’ – not only an entreaty to imagine the stage much wider in scope, but a comment on Henry’s fractured self. He is many things to many people – more of an idea than a psychological presence, and more of a motivational speaker than a soliloquist. We judge him from a distance, rather than suffer with him – as we might with Lear, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, or Prospero.
Much of the production plays like a glossy modern miniseries, combining stylised stage imagery with realistic verisimilitude. The funeral of Henry’s father (Henry IV) is an operatic, epic scene of stately slow-motion, the Donmar’s medium-sized stage filled with black coats and wet umbrellas. Later, Webster chooses to translate the French scenes back into their original language (with surtitles), a cleverly disruptive choice which elevates the French characters from comic ciphers by giving them their own voice. It forces the audience to engage with the words and lean in, rather than let the drama simply wash over them. Yet it also signifies the French characters’ own defined, different culture – equally real on stage, avoiding the sense that the play is being performed as a history told by the English victors. Even the ostensibly comic scenes crackle with a violent danger. The rather unwieldly comedy of the only originally French scene, in which Katherine learns the English words for body parts (‘de fingres’, ‘de hand’, ‘de bilbow’ and so on) is energised by being set to boxing session. Katherine sharpens her defences, physical and linguistic, knowing that she will likely be part of the peace settlement with Henry.
It is a marvel how well the production’s chaotic clash of imagery works. War is rendered as a baroque spectacle, underscored with live choral music from a quartet of actor-musicians, yet it is also hi tech, with sonar pings, helicopter blades and automatic weaponry. As the army goes ‘Once more unto the breach’, the gold back wall of Fly Davis’ set splits apart into four parts, with red lights blazing through the gaps – a vast St George’s Cross, underlining the pungency of nationalism in this Henry V. England are loutish victors, the flag in the set design literally setting alight as the stage fills with a debauched carnival of celebration, giving a new meaning the Chorus’ earlier statement that ‘all the youth of England are on fire’. Now they are on fire with antisocial raving.
Before the play begins, a quotation is projected on the back wall of the stage: ‘There is no document of civilisation that is not also a document of barbarism.’ Walter Benjamin’s statement chimes with Rabkin’s polysemy, inviting the audience to judge – weighing the evidence, as well as potentially condemning Henry. It is a testament to the intentional ambiguity of Webster’s production, though this neutrality is crushed by the weight of real-world events. Strangely, the actions of Putin make this production seem like a far more definite critique of English nationalism than was perhaps originally intended. For all the play acts as a literary optical illusion, flattering Henry with good qualities of bravery, leadership and determination as well as bad, in Webster’s ambitious take, rhetoric can only distract from Henry’s moral outrages – in no way excusing them.
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Max Webster, Design by Fly Davis, Lighting Design by Lee Curran, Sound Design by Carolyn Downing, Video Design by Andrzej Goulding, Movement Direction by Benoit Swan Pouffer, Fight Direction by Kate Waters, Casting by Anna Cooper, Composition by Andrew T Mackay, Starring Kit Harington, Jude Akuwudike, Gethin Alderman, Seumas Begg, Claire-Louise Cordwell, Kate Duchêne, Olivier Huband, David Judge, Melissa Johns, Danny Kirrane, Anoushka Lucas, Adam Maxey, Steven Meo, Joanna Songi, Marienella Phillips, Millicent Wong Production Photographs by Helen Murray Reviewed 12th March 2022
In a playful and intimate new version from translator-director Omar Elerian, The Chairs at the Almeida Theatre is a fantastically disruptive, rambunctious and chaotic meta-drama. It is unlike much else on contemporary British stages (certainly in the larger venues), driven by an offbeat comic intensity, powerhouse performances and searing insight into both Ionesco’s text and the 21st century world his drama is now performed in.
In updating Eugène Ionesco’s classic script, Elerian substitutes the blasted heath no-place, fairly typical of the Theatre of the Absurd, for a dilapidated theatre – which literally falls apart as the show goes on. Presiding over this space are the Old Man and Old Woman, nonagenarians who proceed to welcome invisible guests to watch an upcoming speech, setting out an ever-increasing array of chairs from which the apparent message of salvation they have been promised may be witnessed.
The performances here are utterly virtuosic, with real-life married couple Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni playing the affectionate, tatty hosts with true precision. The mutual warmth is palpable, despite their constant low-level rowing, and the Old Woman calls her husband ‘Crumpet’ with a loving twinkle. Kathryn Hunter’s performance particularly transcends age; the Old Woman’s seniority manifests not through slowness, but in a spritely, child-like impishness, hunched and small though moving with striking agility, while her voice is gruff but squeaks with youth. Elerian makes excellent use of their masterful physicality, and the characters are tremendous assets in the play’s slowly building first hour. Where a director might usually be forced to tighten up and trim down, here the sheer joy exuded by Hunter and Magni allows Elerian to extend the play with delightful stage business – including some hilarious prop work involving an invisible table, and the repetitive, though idiosyncratically evocative language. They constantly mutter phrases like ‘titters and tatters’, enjoying the words for their alliterative quality while alluding to the ruined apocalyptic world outside, which they avoid acknowledging. The play’s pace increases as the show goes on, swirling into a frenzy when the stage revolves – filling with the titular chairs in a breath-taking display of technical, artful choreography.
Yet the comedy of Hunter and Magni is not an elaborate way to delay the play’s conclusion. Instead seems fundamental to the production’s dramaturgy. I found myself acutely aware of my laughter in a way that I had rarely, if ever, felt before. Here, metatheatre is a powerful engine of both comedy and ethics – far more than the nod and a wink fourth wall breaking that audiences are generally more familiar with. After all, the central image of The Chairs is of a stage filled with empty seats – an audience who are not present, perhaps unrepresented on stage or simply the couple’s shared delusion. The audience are always part of the theatrical event (the prerequisite, as in Peter Brook’s famous definition in The Empty Space), yet we have a particularly unstable relationship to The Chairs. The play parallels us as spectators to a message. Yet, as two unwitting front-row dwellers discover, when enlisted in a sudden bout of audience participation, we are as real to the characters as the unreal, onstage audience. The fourth wall is porous and leaky, and it is as if we too are the delusions of the characters.
Very often, the serious British theatre experience for audiences is defined by a pretence of not existing – trying to dissociate from potential bodily discomfort, bound by unwritten codes of etiquette that dictate that the merest rustle of a sweet packet is a transgression against the theatrical illusion. Such dissociation is all but impossible here. From the start, in an extremely funny, several-minute section added to the play’s beginning, we are made aware of our presence. Sat under the house lights, the audience overhears the actors through an intercom they purportedly do not realise is broadcasting. We are denied the customary plunge of the space into darkness – at which point we often would, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist. Instead, we sit – waiting for the show to begin (but of course it already has) – oddly aware of ourselves as the actors peek through the curtains and note that we’re all sitting there waiting.
The play seems in some ways timeless, or of the very end of time, but is shot through with a knowing contemporary edge. The actor playing the Old Man ensconces himself backstage, insisting that he does not wish to perform, saying ‘tell them I’ve got Covid’ – grimly apt given the premature end to the Almeida’s Spring Awakening in January due to positive cases in the company. Later, the Old Woman’s age is wryly quantified in the twenty-one booster vaccines she has been eligible for – a good joke, but one which places the events of the play within touching distance of now, in the most frightening form of apocalyptic dystopia: the near future, within our own expected lifetimes.
Elerian and the company retool Ionesco’s drama for the present day far more significantly than just in these (well-judged) asides though – most strikingly in the complete overhaul of the play’s distinctive, bathetic ending. The Chairs’ (more frequently performed in Britain) counterpart in absurdist drama is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, whose infamous ending in which Godot does not show up is known by the vast majority of audience members in advance. Tragic, however, is not merely his absence, but the absurd, doomed hope that Vladimir and Estragon entertain that Godot could be a source of transformation. That Waiting for Godot’s (lack of) plot is widely known is hardly a problem for the play though. It is not a twist ending, but a dawning realisation – obvious to anyone who has read the programme notes. Yet, if you peruse a programme for a performance of The Chairs, you will ordinarily see a short cast list of three: the Old Man, the Old Woman, and the Orator – who does appear.
Beckett’s play was first staged a year after Ionesco’s, and it could be argued that Beckett is extending, and making more absurd, the misidentification of hope as found in The Chairs. Unlike Godot, the Orator turns up. But just like him, the Orator fails to provide salvation, deliverance, or even coherent words. It is arguably bleaker to see hope which actively fails, rather than a hope postponed indefinitely. Yet though Waiting for Godot is a ‘tragicomedy in two acts’ – suffused with a base humour of impotence – Ionesco denotes his play a ‘tragic farce’. The Chairs is a tragedy because the chairs are really empty and the Orator fails to speak, but it is also a farce because it is witnessed by a real audience, an interplay of genre of which Elerian seems keenly aware. Interviewed by Natasha Tripney in The Stage, he quotes Charlie Chaplin, saying: ‘Life is tragedy up close and comedy in long shot.’ A theatre audience is in the perhaps unique position of having close proximity and abstracted distance all at once.
Ionesco’s original play expressed not only a general existentialist futility, but the fear that grips writers and potentially audiences too: that theatre (and art) which claims to have a message of salvation is actually voiceless and futile. Partly it dramatises a fear of writer’s block, which mirrors a wider political anxiety that we cannot dream up a better future. Yet it also challenges the grand, implicit promise of many works of art, that they can elevate and transcend material circumstances, wielding the power to change minds with empathy and ideas. The Chairs is a core part of a theatrical tradition that wonders if we have got a bit carried away.
Yet, rather brilliantly, Elerian’s version wonders if the infamous silences, absences and privations of existentialist tragedy have become too much of a spectacle in of themselves. The Orator’s inability to form words constitutes a powerful message in itself – an articulately ineloquent expression of artistic and political failures of imagination. Elerian instead subverts everything which makes the original entrance of the Orator grand and symbolic. Toby Sedgwick plays him amid collapsing scenery and without the relevant costume, with a powerful disaffection – half in character, half the reluctant stagehand who has been roped in to play a character with two other actors who wilfully deviate from the script. Hunter and Magni have a brainwave, when a curtain collapses on top of Sedgwick, using the fabric as the imperial robes of the (usually invisible) Emperor – gleefully trampling over the original dramaturgy while Sedgwick visibly seethes. When the time comes for the Orator to attempt to speak, Sedgwick apologetically addresses us, taking a galumphing, conversational tack in striking contrast to Hunter and Magni’s precision. He punctures the magic of theatre with a shrug – telling us that he was not able to change his costume and pulling away fake, stuck-on mutton chops and whiskers from his face with a baffled expression. None of it is real. This is theatre in collapse.
The most substantial deviation Elerian makes from Ionesco is the replacement of the deaf-mute Orator’s ‘Jou, gou, hou, hou’ noises with a fourth-wall breaking address – yet one riddled with the same powerful bathos. Instead of literal nonsense, we hear relatively empty words. His profound truth is still inaccessible, but now lost in what Elerian describes as the ‘so many conflicting truths’ we are subject to in our daily lives.
The Orator references Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, with pronounced indifference – neatly encapsulating the intellectual apathy which Debord diagnosed as a consequence of capitalism on culture. Yet Debord is a potent addition to the production, introducing his notably theatrical terminology of spectacle – and, implicitly criticised, the passivity, transfixion and vulnerability of spectatorship. Many theorists and theatre makers have sought to mitigate the assumed inactivity and nonparticipation of theatre audiences in drama – which Peter Brook diagnosed as the ‘slump’ caused by theatrical ‘deadliness’. The dramaturgies of Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal are designed to deliberately include, exclude and probe their audiences. The latter proposed the term ‘spect-actors’, insisting that to watch drama is not passive, but active, a proposition later argued by Jacques Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator (2009). ‘Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting’, he writes, arguing that the spectator ‘observes, selects, compares, [and] interprets’ – all active engagements with the drama. As in Debord, one of the great dangers of the spectacle though is the general sense of helplessness it can engender – as if the drama would be happening anyway, regardless of the presence of the audience.
While some critics – such as Matt Wolf in the New York Times – lamented the production’s ‘fussy’-ness and questioned the need of the final scene’s elongation, for me, Sedgwick’s closing monologue seems essential. The tragedy of this The Chairs contrasts the original, a riposte to the dramatically bathetic anti-climax of the original, absurdist theatre finding an oxymoronic grandeur in the renunciation of hope or resolution. This puts the whimper back into the way the world ends. It is not as simple as a failure of vision from political leaders or artists, but an unwillingness on the part of the audience to sift the wisdom from the noise – leaving meaning in ‘titters and tatters.’
Written by Eugène Ionesco, Directed and Translated by Omar Elerian, Design by Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen, Lighting Design by Jackie Shemesh, Sound Design by Elena Peña and Pete Malkin, Wigs, Hair and Makeup Co-Designed by Suzanne Scotcher, Voice Coaching by Michaela Kennen, Assistant Direction by Nastazja Domaradzka, Magic Consultant Patrick Ashe, Starring Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni, Toby Sedgwick Production Photographs by Helen Murray Reviewed 11th February 2022
Following his recent critically acclaimed, devastating family drama The Son and Oscar-winning film adaptation The Father, the return of French playwright Florian Zeller to the British stage is a welcome one. Translated again by Christopher Hampton, Zeller’s new play The Forest arrives at Hampstead Theatre as a world premiere. Though it shares some of the previous plays’ experimental touches, this production lacks the emotional pull of previous works – suffused instead with a coolly detached, almost surgical sheen; though there are moments of bloody violence, the overall effect remains pristine – perhaps like an operating theatre.
Even more so here than in previous plays, Zeller employs narrative pyrotechnics to explore his theme formally. In The Forest, the nameless main character is an eminent surgeon – but written on the page as two people, Man 1 and Man 2. The role is doubled (by the excellent Toby Stephens and Paul McGann) – contrasting the amiable father and husband with the conniving cheat, the slick, successful healer of others with his desperate urge for self-preservation. The strength of Stephens and McGann’s performances resists such a simple dichotomy though. All of the selves are encapsulated in both; the dual role simply makes these differences more immediately intelligible.
Zeller’s thesis – that men contain many selves, and thus the capacity for cruelty and violence – becomes apparent quickly, and the play’s structural twists and turns largely serve to generate intrigue in the relatively simple plot, rather than build on this theme. It is undeniably a powerful dramaturgical device, and Stephens and McGann thoughtfully generate a continuity between the two parts, but I found that the unfortunate by-product was the implicit suggestion of male complexity – as opposed to female simplicity. Why is it that all of the male roles alternate between the male actors – not only with Man 1 and Man 2, but with the other men interchanging as various friends and colleagues too? The intention seems to be critical of men and male behaviour, but the effect is almost contradictory; the men exist in exquisite complication while the women are singular and simple – even one-note in places.
At its heart, The Forest seems to be a play about gender – but it rarely digs into the social factors that might cause this male multifariousness – or prohibit it for women. The idea that men exist in multiple selves while women – in general – do not could potentially be examined in light of social and historical norms. Perhaps women are not permitted to be complicated in these ways? Yet Zeller’s drama largely steers away from a concept of gender that is socialised, historical or constructed. The structure – baked into the drama from the very start – gestures towards a crude biological determinism, which goes without interrogation. By definition here, maleness involves a tendency to lie and manipulate. Womanhood, in contrast, is presented as a form of victimhood – every main female character wronged by a man’s (usually sexual, sometimes violent) behaviour. The Forest seems to assert this as a precondition, not a product, of society – interested mainly in the effects of this inescapable psychological prison than on potential solutions to the problem. The harm is to everyone – though the male experience of internal struggle is vividly staged, while women’s pain is expressed either in silence – or is rendered completely inaccessible, when the women are pushed offstage or killed.
Jonathan Kent’s direction is extremely slick, and the cast wring as much from the material as they can. Gina McKee and Angel Coulby should be especially commended – locating emotion in their sometimes cipher-like characters. McKee particularly remains etched in my mind for the way her suspicions, disappointments and ultimate exhaustion seem to play across her face – especially given the relative lack of expression the Wife is given in dialogue. She exists on stage largely through the play’s repeated actions – clearing up wine glasses and fetching water, frowning at the greetings card on some unexpected flowers. Never is McKee’s understated presence more palpable than near the play’s ending, where her crushing disappointment with her husband is expressed in a vast silence. ‘What is it?’, the Man asks, but she says nothing. As Zeller writes in his stage directions: ‘She indicates “nothing” with her head. But her serious expression seems to suggest the opposite. An interminable pause, loaded with subtext.’ This moment could have ended the play – a reminder of the cost of male vices on women. Instead, Zeller goes on, choosing to conclude with the Man’s weeping, under a spotlight – rather expressing the play’s gendered priorities in miniature.
Similarly unexamined (or left only to subtext) are other social dynamics in the play – particularly the class and cultural specificities which allow the Man to live the life he does. The Forest is another play in which upper middle-class people have wine and affairs, leading to internal catastrophe – but which has very little effect on the material circumstances of the protagonist. The play’s intentions tend heavily towards the psychological. Yet when the female perspective is so underexplored, heterosexual infidelity (where the man cheats) lacks the same emotional heft of Zeller’s previous subjects (such as dementia and depression). Formally, it seems to be a story about fundamental gender differences, yet the presence of pharmaceutical corruption, bribery and organised murder steer the story into something more generic, yet less universal.
The Forest’s title comes from a recurring metaphor in the play – a nightmare expressing a potent fear of being lost in a forest, every tree different but looking so similar. The experience of watching play is a bit like being lost in a forest at night, with its sinister, uncanny sense that we have been this way before – but that things have changed. (This is often a good thing, and the play is certainly entertaining – its narrative repetitions and variations reeling you in rather than pushing you away.) The space of the forest has long held contrasting symbolism of wildness and wilderness, but also human (male) power; there is danger in the natural world, but which can also be tamed by hunters. Zeller evokes this heady mix of images, replete as it is with traditional ideas of male conquest – the hunt sometimes analogous to romantic endeavour. Yet it is hard not to feel these ideas could have cohered into something more than (admittedly impressive) stage imagery.
Zeller and Kent craft a show filled with strange, sometimes fabulous images – designed impeccably by Anna Fleischle. The downstairs portion of the stage slowly fills with more and more flowers, which appear almost magically. A large painting imperceptibly changes, its style becoming more photorealistic while also changing to display the image of the Girlfriend by the end. In the bedroom of her small flat – which looms above the stage, like the sword of Damocles – we see the Girlfriend’s bloody body laid across the bed, over and over. It is a queasy image though, rather aestheticized – as female corpses too often are. At the end of the play, the lights come up on the bedroom set to reveal a huge deer – shot dead – spreadeagled across the bed, reaffirming the earlier metaphor of forests and conquest. The Girlfriend has become the victim of cruel, male endeavour.
The reason for her murder is simply that – growing tired and jealous of the Man’s marriage to the Wife – she threatens to reveal the affair, unless he commits to be exclusive with her. Coulby mostly sells the characterisation, though play struggles to conceive of any relationship desired by a woman that does not amount to heterosexual monogamy. Yet for all of the Man’s obvious flaws, I also found his willingness to commit murder (by proxy, though one scene presents Man 2 firing and wiping the barrel clean of fingerprints) unconvincing – a stretch too far for a man whose morality seemed merely deficient, rather than a complete void.
If The Forest is meant to imply that these are horrifying depths to which men may sink, given the opportunity, in shallow self-preservation, then its logic is not developed quite enough. Murder here felt too easy – its reveal a relatively cheap twist, a feat of rapid costume changing and sly set design, rather than a source of psychological horror. In its presentation of wronged women, the weight of the betrayal is relatively weak, when the female characters are so thinly sketched. Zeller’s writing merely invites us to pity them, rather than sympathise with their suffering.
Written by Florian Zeller, Translated by Christopher Hampton, Directed by Jonathan Kent, Set Design by Anna Fleischle, Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, Sound Design by Isobel Waller-Bridge, Starring Toby Stephens, Gina McKee, Millie Brady, Paul McGann, Angel Coulby, Eddie Toll, Silas Carson, Sakuntala Ramanee, Finbar Lynch Reviewed 17th February 2022
You first realise that this staging of A Number is beginning as rich string chords fade in across the auditorium. As the light’s come down, the music becomes recognisable as the work of Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt. His piece ‘Fratres’ will recur throughout the production, scoring the interstices between the five scenes, and I found it to be a hugely powerful choice which was not only thematically apt, but revelatory even in Lyndsey Turner’s heart-breaking take on Caryl Churchill’s short play.
First performed in 2002, A Number tells a deceptively simple tale of a father (Salter) and his son (Bernard), who has seen ‘a number’ of clones of himself wandering around in the world. At first, Salter denies all knowledge, but the facades he has built soon crumble away and we learn that this Bernard is also a clone – having duplicated the first Bernard after putting him into care. Instead of having another child, Salter insists though that he wanted ‘the same’; as becomes clear, he wanted to have another go at getting fatherhood right. Though debuting amid moral panics over cloning, The essential durability of Churchill’s is epitomised by A Number – whose most searching questions concern the tyrannies of parenthood, abuse, and the socialised nature of identity. Yet in the Old Vic’s new version, Arvo Pärt’s music reveals an additional layer of spirituality – which foreshadows the interests of her recent works, such as Imp and What If If Only.
Originally composed in 1977, ‘Fratres’ has become a phenomenon of 20th century classical music. It is something of a staple in film soundtracks (notably There Will Be Blood) and I believe it is commonly used as placeholder temporary music in the making of other film and television (meaning that many scores end up sounding a bit like it). Its sublime power is undiminished though, and ‘Fratres’ exudes a potent religiosity that moves even secular listeners (including this one).
In many ways, it is the perfect piece to juxtapose with A Number. It is structured in many variations, all different, yet stemming from the same underlying patterns – as the drama’s clones differ while sharing DNA. ‘Fratres’ means ‘brothers’ in Latin, the word balancing familial and holy fellowship, while seeming to comment on the brotherly relationship of each of the piece’s sections. Its energy matches Churchill’s writing too – mercurially shifting from serene stillness and bell-like chords to dazzling, choppy motion. Churchill’s dialogue is similarly coiled like a spring – taut, often quiet and calm, yet with an angular, staccato edge.
It even seems ironically apt that ‘Fratres’ exists not in a single version – but many; the original 1977 version was written ‘without fixed instrumentation’. Thus, there is no definitive or original ‘Fratres’ – fitting given Bernard 2’s questions over the contrasting order and primacy of Salter’s clone sons. Since its composition, it has been performed (perhaps most commonly) by violin and cello soloists with a piano, by orchestras, ensembles of cellists, bands of percussionists, and even a quartet of saxophones. Yet each one shares the same framework – the same musical DNA.
Yet this production’s use of Pärt is more than a canny thematic concordance, unearthing, for me, a rich spiritual yearning at the heart of A Number. Past productions, like the Polly Findlay’s terrific 2020 version (with Colin Morgan and Roger Allam at the Bridge Theatre), have left this side of the play relatively unexplored – more than justifying Turner’s decision to remount the play so soon after its last major outing.
This spirituality is found in the structure of Pärt’s composition. In the early 1970s, Pärt converted from Lutheranism to Orthodox Christianity, and after several years, in 1976, began composing again – adopting a new method with a decidedly religious motivation. ‘Fratres’ was an early work in Pärt’s now-defining ‘tintinnabuli’ style. From ‘tintinnabulum’ (Latin for ‘bell’), this mathematical – even algorithmic – form of composition combines two main voices: the notes of the chord of the key signature, and line generally moving in step. These form a ringing harmony, plaintively beautiful – sacred yet modern.
In 1997, Björk commented that Pärt ‘has got the whole battle of this century inside him’. He considers music to have not only spiritual significance, but purpose. Describing the combination of melody with tintinnabuli chords – as in ‘Fratres’, often played on violin or cello and piano respectively – Pärt says that ‘the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line [of tintinnabuli chords] is forgiving the sins’. The music ministers to human errors, an agent of forgiveness. Tom Service even argues that the dissonances that Pärt’s systematic approach creates generate simultaneous ‘sorrow’ and ‘consolation’. His music is a beautiful, though painful, form of purification.
Though some critics have questioned the Old Vic’s decision to stage A Number, less than two (pandemic-stricken) years since the Bridge’s major revival, this is arguably the first production to put forward, as the play’s main theme, forgiveness. Specifically, A Number depicts a failure to seek forgiveness – the play’s father-figure, Salter, clinging onto a tragic desperation to do and be right entirely through his own actions. This is encapsulated in the decision to use the mellower cello arrangement of ‘Fratres’, with its lower, paternal melody line – evoking the sins of the father.
What the presence of ‘Fratres’ seems to articulate, almost imperceptibly, is the alternative path Salter could have taken. The irony at the heart of the play is that the biggest mistake he should correct if he could was his decision to clone his son – a choice driven by an urge to fix past errors. This production seems to argue that Salter should have sought affirmation and forgiveness – perhaps even of a spiritual kind – rather than turn to science. There is no gesture towardness naturalness or criticism of man playing God though; the reason why turning to such a drastic scientific option is flawed is because it is fundamentally incapable of giving Salter the absolution he craves. A second child does not give him a blank slate, but a rickety house of cards – which his lies have sustained for years – which now comes tumbling down.
In Pärt’s music, mathematics and physics are transformative – allowing closeness to the divine. His musical system represents (and for some even does) the forgiveness of sins. For Salter though, science is a means to a very different end. Though the process successfully produces a clone for him to parent, he fails to acknowledge the insurmountable scientific fact of time having passed – and his past actions having had effects. Forgiveness cannot be a unilateral act of self-exoneration, nor can it be attained through further lies and fantasy. A Number is thus a powerfully moving portrait of a father who yearns for forgiveness he cannot bring himself to ask for.
What elevates this already philosophically and psychologically rich staging even more is the urgent force of its actors, who transform the cryptic turns of the plot into aching human relevations – the pain palpable. Paapa Essiedu is extraordinary, conveying three different but genetically identical characters with immaculate precision. In the opening scene, Salter’s clone son Bernard is rendered with humane perplexity – struggling to piece together the literal facts of his own life and the paternal betrayal simultaneously. Bernard 1, meanwhile, is tenser – coiled with an agitation and simmering menace that culminate in the revelation of his murder of Bernard 2, and then his suicide. In the final scene, Essiedu plays Michael Black – one of the twenty or so unauthorised clones of Bernard 1 – and finds another, strikingly different, register. Hugely (somewhat comically) unbothered by being a clone, the character’s presence almost raises questions as to why he is in the play at all – living a life of quiet, ordinary happiness, in contrast to the searching desperation of Salter, his parent only in biology. Yet this contrast epitomises the play’s dramatization of the alternative path; Michael does not feel the crushing need to be defined by his origins.
Lennie James, meanwhile, matches Essiedu – anchoring the play with an unshowy, subtle turn as Salter. His good-natured demeanour and stage action lull us into a security that is offset by the truth of his actions. Salter is often in motion – a proactive father – quietly undertaking housework tasks, and gently wringing tea towels with discomfort. When he talks about the difficulties of parenting, saying ‘I did cook meals now and then’, it seems less apologetic than self-effacing; he does seem – in some ways – an attentive, well-meaning dad, though with a secret eating him up inside. James opts to play him as a man who barely knows that he is lying, the effect brilliantly realised. Lies seem so customary to Salter that he cannot help it. ‘I’m not attempting to deny’, he says to Bernard 1, mere seconds after an attempted denial. James’ warmth makes Salter seem wretched rather than evil, not dissimilar to Allam’s take in 2020. It is probably the better choice, mining the role’s understated pathos rather than presenting him as a sinister, calculating manipulator. Salter does not consider himself a villain but becomes something like one through his efforts not to be.
When – almost on reflex – Salter suggests that Bernard could sue the cloning company, for infringement on his personhood, it sounds like the result of a learned cultural instinct, from the capitalist waters we swim in, rather than the result of a scheming personal greed. Systems of justice and restitution have been usurped by a purely financial logic. This implicit satire of compensation culture is perhaps one of the play’s more specific links to the early noughties – much more so than the moral panics over cloning and identity.
Though identity and the age-old nature versus nurture debate rumble below A Number’s surface, Turner presents the play mainly as an account of paternal failure and inherited consequences. Here, Churchill’s drama seems fairly certain that genetics are far lower down the deterministic pecking order than the effects of parenting and socialisation – which the final scene, quietly, devastatingly demonstrates. The early taut, domestic tension dissipates with a change to Es Devlin’s set, which replaces the sleek, minimalist, modular home with an art gallery – each canvas strikingly empty. A security guard wanders in the background, the play’s intense two-character dramaturgy substituted for something looser, more leisurely and laid-back.
There is none of the blame-filled struggle between father and son. The clone Michael provides a vision of an alternative path – the same DNA, raised differently. Yet the key difference was not that he was raised in a different style per se, but that he was not brought up by Salter. The purpose of the meeting seems to be for Salter to extract information – about Michael’s emotions and inner life. Michael, though, cannot provide all of the answers Salter is looking for, struggling to understand why the existence of other clones – and the fact he is one – would be a form of ‘losing [his] life’. ‘I’ve still got my life’, he calmly responds. Salter probes, hoping to find Michael’s essence – ‘tell me something about yourself that’s really specific to you, something really important’ – but Michael insists again and again on defining himself in relation to others. His wife, family and baby all constitute a large part of his identity; meanwhile, as Michael blithely notes, we have ‘thirty percent the same [DNA] as a lettuce’. Advocates for genetically determined difference not only overlook the vast similarities – evoked here as ‘the unifuckingversal [joy of] turning over in bed’ – but also that what particularises us as individuals is very often the unique combination of relationships we have formed with others. The reason Michael is so unaffected by the revelation of his birth is that he looks to meaningful relationships for his identity, rather than inside himself or towards a point of origin.
Salter’s fundamental mistake – his flaw, even – is that for him everything is coloured by deterministic logic, coloured quite literally in Es Devlin’s beautifully pristine set. The home setting for scenes one to four evokes the pungent vitality yet unreality of Salter’s world. Almost every single prop and feature on stage is painted the same shade of deep red. It has the sheen of a modern science lab and the intense lighting of a nuclear power station in meltdown. The effect is uncanny and unsettling; something in this home is not quite right. The hue unavoidably evokes blood. For Salter, that is where the bond between father and son is located – a biological fact, rather than a shared, social relationship. What makes Salter’s flaw so toxifying is his inability to reckon with his sons’ differences from him; though connected through blood, one’s children will always have their own lives distinct from yours – a painful fact every parent has to accept. Yet for Salter, divergence equates to a form of personal failure. Devlin’s masterfully heightened realism is matched in the dialogue’s delivery too. Churchill’s staccato rhythms are deliberately challenging, potentially open to an ultra-realist, digressive interpretation, though here the actors lend them a perfectly off-kilter, stylised edge.
As you watch Turner’s production, you peer closer – trying to see how things fit together, as Bernard 2 does at the baffling course of events in the first scene. At some point (perhaps early on, or only at the curtain call) you figure out that the Pärt-underscored inter-scenes feature not Essiedu but an understudy (Phillip Olagoke) to facilitate what seem like dazzlingly quick, magical costume changes. It is a neat touch to mirror the play’s themes in this stage magic – more Bernards wandering about than you expect.
While I certainly agree with Dan Rebellato’s claim that Caryl Churchill ‘never repeats herself’, A Number’s concerns seem so defining and important that it is not surprising to see them appearing again new forms. Churchill’s latest short play, the brilliant What If If Only – which James Macdonald staged at the Royal Court in late 2021 – spirals back to these themes, this time with a partner who the protagonist seems to will into manifestation. That’s what Bernard 2 is here – a ‘what if if only’ made flesh. Yet this production shows that it would not be fair to assert A Number is the harder sci-fi play compared to What If If Only’s ghostly spirituality. A searching, almost-but-not-quite religious quality flickers in A Number too, animated here in the transfixing and moving use of ‘Fratres’ – evoking Salter’s sins, and the failed attempts at forgiveness which he made without making an apology.
The play ends with Salter asking ‘[do] you like your life’, to which Michael replies ‘I do yes, sorry.’ Of course, ironically, Michael is the one with nothing to apologise for.
Written by Caryl Churchill, Directed by Lyndsey Turner, Set Design by Es Devlin, Costume Design by Natalie Pryce, Lighting Design by Tim Lutkin, Sound Design by Donato Wharton, Starring Paapa Essiedu, Lennie James, David Carr, Phillip Olagoke Reviewed 14th February 2022