SMOKE at Southwark Playhouse Borough
“The physical reality of the production doesn’t match the stinging quality of the words.”
The publicity copy, and writer Kim Davies’ programme notes, make much of “Smoke” being an adaptation of August Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’. There are similarities. The characters’ names – and, more tenuously, their background. Julie (Meaghan Martin) is the daughter of a successful artist, never seen but the constant references to him serve as a reminder of his power. And there’s John (Oli Higginson); a dogsbody at the artist’s beck and call with an obsequious ambition to achieve the latter’s recognition. We are in a kitchen too, albeit a symbolic one.
Yet “Smoke” impresses as a stand-alone piece in its own right. The shackles that bind it to Strindberg’s original both detract and confuse. The setting and the themes of Davies’ writing – writing which is undeniably sharp – are smudged by expectation and the inevitable but thwarted search for comparison.
Sami Fendall’s design suggests the kitchen with an upturned fridge in a pit of black sand. Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai’s staging makes much use of the sand, stretching its symbolism to breaking point. It is continually being sifted through the hands. It is the eponymous smoke, it is cigarette ash, it is the blunt edge of a knife that will never cut as deep as words. It is foreplay, and afterplay. It becomes limited by its own variations, and therefore a cliché. But back to the kitchen, which is where we find Julie and John. Always in the kitchen at parties, this party being a BDSM party in New York City. John is introducing Julie to the world of bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism. It evolves into a game that is not just cutthroat but involves other parts of the anatomy. Verbally graphic, it delves into the subjects of sexual identity, consent and assault.
The performances are as strong as they get. Higginson has a steely charisma that allows him to give his character the credibility it needs, overcoming his status with confidant dominance. Martin’s Julie is no less fierce – her submissiveness snapping intermittently to outrage. Rajiv Pattani’s staccato lighting cleverly shifts the changes of perspective at crucial moments. The play sets out to challenge the notions of consent and, in the wake of #metoo, is pertinent. Some brave choices have been made but a paradoxical backlash of the changing times that are being celebrated is that the danger is presented in too safe an environment. An intimacy director is credited in the programme but, either because their job was done too well or because they were not really needed, there is little onstage chemistry – dangerous or otherwise – between the two. The physical reality of the production doesn’t match the stinging quality of the words.
Perhaps it is a deliberate avoidance to take sides, but we are never quite sure what the piece is trying to say. Julie’s question “Do you want to fuck me?” goes some way towards epitomising the predicament. She is offended if the answer is ‘yes’ and offended if it is ‘no’. John is damned whatever his answer. As the play progresses the dilemmas darken considerably, yet the confusion remains. Perhaps there are no answers. Perhaps there is still much to be learnt. The BDSM setting seems to be a convenient backdrop to Davies’ drama, just as Strindberg is a starting point. But both seem superfluous. “Smoke” tackles important issues without breaking any real ground, allowing a certain pretentiousness to get in the way. Despite the heated and powerful performances, it shows that sometimes there is smoke without fire.
Reviewed on 3rd February 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Lucy Hayes
Previously reviewed at this venue: