The Sunset Limited
Reviewed – 21st January 2020
“fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence”
“The Sunset Limited”, by the American novelist, playwright and screenwriter Cormac McCarthy, was originally published as ‘A Novel in Dramatic Form’. What distinguishes this from a play is uncertain. What is certain, though, is that the award-winning writer’s unique style infuses each word and phrase with customary flamboyant bleakness that holds our attention to an almost uncomfortable degree.
Devoid of any real theme or plot, it is fiercely and fearlessly full of rich dialogue that explores some of the deepest questions of human existence. In the past, McCarthy has admitted that he respects only authors who “deal with issues of life and death”. Indeed, his nihilistic, almost existential approach can be off-putting on the surface, but his command of language and colloquial style effortlessly draw us into this short, one act play. And once we are in, what keeps us there – in this case – are the performances of Gary Beadle and Jasper Britton who play the two nameless characters.
Referred to only by the colour of their skin, Beadle is labelled ‘Black’, while Britton is ‘White’. All the action (or inaction) takes place in Black’s sparse, run-down tenement building. Black is an ex-convict while White is a professor. Sounds predictable and insensitively black and white, but any potential stereotyping is rapidly subverted and quashed. Black is cheerful; an optimist and evangelical Christian while White is an irredeemably miserable atheist. It becomes clear in the opening scene that Black has saved White from throwing himself under a train. (The title of the play derives from the name of the passenger train – The Sunset Limited – that travels from New Orleans to Los Angeles). Black has taken White back to his apartment and taken it upon himself to save White from any further attempts at suicide.
Beadle and Britton captivate throughout as we watch them steer their way through the ensuing debate. Nothing happens, beyond drinking coffee, or Black serving up a dish of reheated Creole cuisine from his fridge. But we are shaken to the core by their two opposing worlds, and our ideas are shattered by the crashing waves of their argument. Just as we think we are safely buoyed up by Black’s rolling tide of positivity, we are dangerously dragged back by the undertow of White’s nihilism. It is a raging debate, but comical too. “I long for the darkness” utters White, “If I thought that in death, I would meet the people I knew in life, I don’t know what I’d do. That would be the ultimate nightmare”. Britton beautifully seizes on the savagery of this pessimism but with a deadpan glee that brings out the humour. Beadle’s bible bashing counter arguments come with as many absurd and self-deprecating twists that remind us that we are being entertained rather than preached at.
The two actors’ natural performances transform McCarthy’s writing into a kind of poetry. Director Terry Johnson pitches them together in a slow dance that keeps the rhythm flowing and echoing in our heads long after we leave the theatre. The questions it has kicked up refuse to settle. After all – there are no real answers for them to settle on. But we, the audience, have the easier task: we can safely discuss these questions of life and death in the bar after the show, leaving the characters on the stage to make the life or death decisions.
The outlook is pitch-black and harsh, and seemingly a dead end, but nowhere else is a journey to nowhere such a pleasure.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Marc Brenner
The Sunset Limited
Boulevard Theatre until 29th February
Last ten shows reviewed by Jonathan:
Reviewed – 25th June 2018
“The air is also blue with some magnificently filthy language, imbuing the evening with an irresistibly sinuous rawness”
Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ is a great swaggering blast of a play, set in the fictional Wiltshire village of Flintock on St George’s Day. Taking its title as much from William Blake’s ironic poem (‘was Jerusalem builded here among those dark, Satanic mills?’) as from its use by Parry as a patriotic hymn, Butterworth tackles head-on the idea of Englishness. He comes up with some answers that may surprise more than one regular theatregoer at Newbury’s dreamy Watermill theatre, which is nestled in bucolic woods and fields not far from those the play depicts.
At the heart of the play is the larger than life character of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, (Jasper Britton, ex-RSC) an exuberantly crowing cock-of-the-walk who has lived for decades in a semi-derelict caravan deep in the woods. He’s a spinner of the most fantastic yarns. Born by immaculate conception with a full set of teeth, a daredevil with magic blood in his veins, he’s a man made of rock who has heard the trees sing.
But this is no enchanted forest from a Midsummer Night. Byron is also a drug pusher and a drunk who has been banned from every pub for his brawling. His life is a ‘Bucolic, Alcoholic Frolic.’ Around him cluster half a dozen or so wasted, washed-up kids, half-believing his wild stories, but quick to turn on him when he’s down. A kind of mythic haze hangs over the grimy clearing where Byron’s caravan is slowly mouldering into the ground in Frankie Bradshaw’s compelling set. The air is also blue with some magnificently filthy language, imbuing the evening with an irresistibly sinuous rawness. This is an inspired production that thanks to Lisa Blair’s excellent direction seems to grow out of the very earth the Watermill theatre stands on.
As Byron, Britton has made the part his own in a way that stands apart from Mark Rylance’s much-praised interpretation at the play’s Royal Court premiere. Britton is a colossal figure, bursting with fierce energy, mired in filth but brilliant with quick wit that lights up the theatre. The same quick-fire vitality marks the performances of several of Rooster Byron’s acolytes. Peter Caulfield as Ginger is one of the ‘Lost Boys’ – gawky and wasted, never growing up, always hoping for a break that he knows in his heart will never come. As Lee, Sam Swann has a touching innocence that’s just right for the part of the kid who thinks he’s heading to a better life tomorrow. Santino Smith is funny and compelling as Davey who has never seen the point of other counties. ‘I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop.’ Richard Evans makes the professor ethereal and vulnerable, making a vivid connection with the language of enchantment in the literature and lyrics he quotes. Robert Fitch gives a raw and edgy performance as Wesley, the hopeless morris-dancing publican who’ll take a line from Rooster and then ban him from his pub. Adam Burton, Rebecca Lee, Natalie Walter and an alternating trio of child actors as Marky all make excellent contributions to this brilliant show. Dialect coach Elspeth Morrison deserves a special mention for keeping the cast (mostly) on track in a broad Wiltshire accent.
This wonderfully involving three-act play opens with Nenda Neurer as Phaedra singing ‘Jerusalem’ with a kind of sweetly knowing innocence. What follows is both a compelling story but also a brilliantly crafted meditation on what it is to be of an ancient land where continuity and chaos, truth and fiction, hope and despair are all wrapped up into an enthralling mixture.
The Watermill Theatre’s ‘Jerusalem’ continues to Saturday 21 July. Lighting by Christopher Nairne, Sound and music, Tom Attwood, Paul Benzing, fight director.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Philip Tull
Watermill Theatre until 21st July
Previously reviewed at this venue