“The cast’s depictions are all pin sharp, yet McGann stands out”
Alex is an artist enduring the final stages of his life following a brutal, second stroke. Living, barely, in the arid, American South West, he is the subject of practical and philosophical contemplations between his son Sean (Jack Wilkinson), second wife Toinette (Josie Lawrence) and fourth, younger wife Lia (Clara Indrani) as to when and how he should be guided into the beyond. We see Alex (Joe McGann) at different stages: in his cavorting and carefree prime, between strokes in a wheelchair, and finally in a vegetative state to be sedated at the whim of his significant others. His fate is now dependent on the trio’s conflicting views of him as a father or husband, as much as on their ponderings on morality and mortality.
As a novelist for whom writing is ‘a concentrated form of thinking’, Don DeLillo seems impossible to transfer stylistically to the stage. His slow and sublime evocation of mood and abstract themes don’t promise much for a theatre-goer to engage with. Director Jack McNamara admits his reservations were eventually overcome only by having the resources to create theatricality by other means. That he pulls it off is a noteworthy feat. Lily Arnold’s set design shows us the comfortable sofa and wooden floor of Alex’s home, essential for long, angsty interactions, but surrounding it is the sand and scrub that symbolises the immense unknown, creating a sense that Alex and everyone else sit at the edge of eternity. Over this scene looms a huge transparent screen, host to some stunning video and lighting effects (Azusa Ono and Andrzej Goulding) which somehow create the distance and nostalgia of memories by technical means, assisted by cinematic sound design from Alexandra Faye Braithwaite.
Given the sedentary nature of the main character, action is difficult to contrive. The brilliance of the script prompts regular chuckles of appreciation from the audience, but emotional connection is harder to come by. The cast’s depictions are all pin sharp, yet McGann stands out, despite or because of having the hardest task, by breathing authenticity into a mostly cerebral role; an artist creating art out of his bleak context. This may or may not be a parallel with De Lillo himself, but given the control and precision in every aspect of the play, including this production, it seems unlikely to be a coincidence.
A memorable production, this Love-Lies-Bleeding matches poetic imagery with precise staging. However, if you’re left pleasantly haunted by the show, it’s accompanied by a strange desire to find a copy of the text to experience it properly, as a reader.
“The throbbing backwards and forwards motion of the set pieces, metaphorically becomes the walls of Steven’s mind”
‘Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK’. So the statistic emblazoned within the programme of new show Distance declares. It is certainly an issue that needs to be extensively addressed, which, collaborators Alex McSweeney and Simon Pittman successfully achieve with their new production. Distance precisely depicts the struggles of one man and his mental health, effectively portraying what so many feel on the inside, but can never be fully understood. McSweeney was compelled to write about this ‘invisible illness’ after five people he knew killed themselves in just over five years. All male. The passion and dedication to get under the skin of this disease is so very apparent. But there is no preaching a cause here. Distance efficaciously negotiates being laugh-out-loud entertaining and heartbreakingly honest within a matter of moments.
Steven (Adam Burton) has been going through a dark time of late. Recently separated, and on the verge of getting a divorce from his wife (Lindsay Fraser), he serendipitously bumps into an old friend (Abdul Salis) whilst on the train to a job interview. On the surface, Steven is friendly and engaged in this rather banal encounter, yet, deep down, he is spiralling into the dark, troubled inner depths of his mind and being. We find him frantically trying to makes sense of the chaotic world around him and his place within it. Action abstractly flits from the present, to being taken on a trip to the inside of Steve’s head, hearing, and physically seeing, the unrestrained, and often, disturbing feelings that he is currently enduring.
Burton delivers a hard-hitting and truthful portrayal of the how it must be like to have a “black dog” inside you, as his character Steven describes it. With nuanced ease he conveys swinging between functioning normally on the outside and then demonstrating quick flickers of the pain and turmoil on the inside – the double-edged sword of depression. The rest of the cast offer tremendous backup in their supporting roles, providing either lighter relief or painful context for Steven’s struggles.
The cherry on top is the ingenious set design from Bethany Wells, which feels like a character in itself. The throbbing backwards and forwards motion of the set pieces, metaphorically becomes the walls of Steven’s mind, gradually enclosing on him at a claustrophobic rate and then easing out again as he tries to feel and act ‘normal’.
Distance offers an excellent examination on mental health issues, raising a red flag on how it can affect not just the person themselves, but the loved ones around them, as well as intimating the pressures our society implements on us all. Particularly, the sense of there being a universal crisis of masculinity. Powerful and thought-provoking yet enjoyably accessible. A winning combination for bringing much needed awareness to a deeply serious matter.