[ BLANK ]
Reviewed – 23rd October 2019
“cleverly creeps under our skin as a piece of theatre and leaves us with a lot to contemplate”
A woman breaks into her parents’ home to steal money for drugs; a prisoner sees every object as a possible way of killing herself; a sex worker waits in the cold for an extra ten pounds…
For forty years, Clean Break has been changing the future of women during and after their time in prison by both providing an outlet to challenge their misrepresentation in popular entertainment and as a formative process for learning, expression and evolution. Alice Birch’s commission to celebrate this gives carte blanche from a selection of 100 scenes – any number, any order – which address the manifold causes, processes and effects of being caught up in the criminal justice system. By the very nature of the crimes women commit, locking them away is less a safety measure for the rest of society than distancing them from their own threats with devastating repercussions for them, those they depend on and who depend on them. Director, Maria Aberg, has carefully chosen and arranged her selection to touch on lives blighted by a structure which does not confront these complex pastoral issues.
With a brilliant choice of cast, the scope for illustrating the breadth of age, race and class of these women works well visually as well as within the script. Rosie Elnile’s versatile set of raised, individual box rooms around a central space forms different levels of impact for the audience, from the feeling of observed, intimate conversations of abusive relationships and foster care to being drawn into the group spirit of prison life. Some scenes work better than others, however, which produces a somewhat uneven flow. After fragments of emotional experiences at home and in prison, of mothers, daughters, prisoners and staff, the action’s centrepiece (and scene number 100) is a dinner party of old friends. Here Birch brings together all the elements of the good-doing, professional society, patting each other on the back and having another glass of wine. The overlapping conversation between the guests is superb, hypocrisy slowly smouldering as their personalities unfold (the detective, the documentary maker, the therapist, the charity volunteers…) until the one outsider, played by Shona Babayemi, in a passionate outburst, can stand the insincerity no longer.
There are strong performances all round, though our natural expectations for an imposed narrative makes it difficult to completely engage with the characters. Thusitha Jayasundera shows us the painful impotence of a mother who is told her daughter has committed suicide in prison and we feel the confused heartbreak of Joanna Horton as the mother who sees no option for her children but to kill them. In a truly sobering moment, Lucy Edkins and Kate O’Flynn’s quietly powerful final scene as mother and daughter sums up the tragic personal loss of the ignored. Despite the dark and distressing subject, the writing, acting and direction balances sadness with humour. ‘Blank’ cleverly creeps under our skin as a piece of theatre and leaves us with a lot to contemplate.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Helen Maybanks
Donmar Warehouse until 30th November
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Menier Chocolate Factory
Reviewed – 16th May 2019
“Every moment between them is overflowing with nuance and tension, with a beautiful unpredictability as to how their relationship will develop”
The stage directions in the plays of the likes of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller are notorious for their length and level of detail – to actors, directors, and designers they can often feel like micromanagement of every aspect from the writer. Tamara Harvey’s production of Orpheus Descending defies the demands of the stage directions by instead having Valentine Hanson’s Uncle Pleasant speak some of them aloud. Amongst an unfocused opening, this comes off as a somewhat baffling choice, but key moments transfigure the function of the directions by weaponising them to make a stern point about the cyclical nature of hatred and fear within small-town communities, creating a rich and layered tapestry that delves directly into the human heart.
The titular Orpheus of Orpheus Descending is Valentine Xavier (Seth Numrich), a guitar-wielding, snakeskin-wearing drifter who has ended up in a small Southern town and is looking for work. Conveniently, Lady Torrance (Hattie Morahan) needs an extra hand at her general store since her husband Jabe (Mark Meadows) has fallen ill and although she’s reticent to employ an outsider, her decision to do so takes both her and Valentine on a passionate and ideological odyssey – albeit one threatened by the animosity from the rest of the town towards Valentine. The play grapples with a lot of hefty themes and ideas, chief among which seemed to be an exploration of outcasts and belonging – the clash of the townspeople who immediately dislike any intrusion into their tight-knit community with the free-spirited and open-minded nature of Valentine exposes the prejudices embedded into society and how can they affect even those who thought they were safe. In many ways, it operates as a microcosm for wider society and – sadly – still bears a lot of relevance today.
There are universally excellent performances on display here – even minor roles like Ian Porter’s Sheriff Talbott and Carrie Quinlan’s Nurse Porter carry a depth and gravitas that enrich the texture of their actions and dialogue. Jemima Rooper also does an incredible job as Carol Cutrere, another outcast whose circumstance and attitude serves as a smart counterpoint to Valentine. However, the abundance of praise must go to Numrich and Morahan as the central pair – the dynamic between the two is like a injection of rocket fuel directly into the bloodstream. Every moment between them is overflowing with nuance and tension, with a beautiful unpredictability as to how their relationship will develop; it’s never anything less than a total joy to watch the two interact.
Harvey’s direction and Jonathan Fensom’s minimalist design keeps the focus firmly on the performances, which is probably for the best given that there are so many – there are thirteen actors in the play, which results in an opening that’s quite chaotic and messy. It makes you wish the creative team had been as bold with presenting the most focused version of the play as they had with the stage directions, because once it does hone in on Valentine and Lady, Orpheus Descending is hauntingly seismic.
Reviewed by Tom Francis
Photography by Johan Persson
Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July
Previously reviewed at this venue: