“The performances are uniformly magnificent: honest and brutal. Yet it stops just short of drawing us in emotionally”
Towards the end of Naomi Wallace’s “The Breach”, the joint protagonist, Jude, is imagining a version of the past that didn’t happen, but could have. It takes a while to get there but the scene encapsulates both the power and impotence of hindsight. The characters wrestle with regret, bereavement and guilt, but more so with the question of whether that could have been avoided had they acted differently.
The play jumps between 1977 and 1991, initially as two very different worlds but gradually they overlap and the two separate decades bear witness to each other. Set against a completely bare stage there is little to differentiate the two ages. Different actors play the younger and older versions of the characters. Between the scenes a stark line of white light sweeps the stage, brushing them away like skittles to replace them with their counterparts.
We begin in the seventies, in small town America, a time of restlessness, turbulence, political scandal and a questioning of traditional authority (there are extensive, weighty articles in the programme notes depicting the profound effects on the American youth of the Vietnam War and ‘Neoliberalism’ – although not touched upon at all in the script). Seventeen-year-old Jude (Shannon Tarbet) has taken it upon herself to protect her younger brother Acton (Stanley Morgan). They spend their days in the basement of their modest home creating their own world. Frayne (Charlie Beck) and Hoke (Alfie Jones) gate-crash this world – not so much friends of Acton but emotional racketeers. Conditions are laid and sacrifices must be made. Inevitably the bond between brother and sister is snapped in two. In hindsight, the love they shared that could have prevented this is the exact same love that caused it.
So, you cannot escape the actions of the past then. But can you learn from them? Tellingly there is no casting for the older Acton, but Jude (Jasmine Blackborow), Frayne (Douggie McMeekin) and Hoke (Tom Lewis) reconvene fourteen years later. As each snapshot of 1991 plays out onstage, more is revealed of the dangerous games the teenagers played, focusing on many issues – most notably sexual consent. A lot is said today about how it was a ‘different time’, back then. But accountability (rightly or wrongly) has no limits. As these thirty-somethings examine their past, one wonders who the victims and who the culprits are. And are the intervening years of guilt and atonement enough or should further punishment be executed? This play, while never giving us a succinct answer, suggests we punish ourselves enough. There are no winners.
Sarah Frankcom’s sharp and efficient direction matches Wallace’s writing which is as penetrative as ever. The performances are uniformly magnificent: honest and brutal. Yet it stops just short of drawing us in emotionally. We don’t quite see the fragility, fear and loneliness that lies beneath the rough exterior. Which is a shame, and a surprise. Based partially on past experience, it seems that Wallace has poured a lot of her own heart into the writing; but ultimately it appeals more to the intellect than to our hearts.
“has a harrowing complexity, exposing the emptiness that manifests itself as ordinariness”
“If I’d known you were going to act like this, I wouldn’t have told you” complains Jessie to her mother mid-way through Marsha Norman’s one act play, “’Night, Mother”. On the surface it’s a fairly run of the mill, snappy remark for a thirty something divorcee, living once again in her mother’s house. Although what she has told her, quite casually, is that she is going to kill herself. We know by now she isn’t joking; but with a punchline as shattering as that so early on it is hard to know where to go from here. But this play covers plenty of ground within the confines of ‘Mama’ Thelma’s mid-American country home, thanks to Norman’s contemplative yet penetrative writing. And two outstanding and moving performances from Stockard Channing as emotionally charged ‘Mama’, and Rebecca Night as the matter of fact, bloodless, Jessie.
“Where’s Daddy’s gun?” It’s a throwaway question as the two characters wade through the clutter of domestic routine, the lightweight delivery belying the Chekhovian gravity of the dialogue. There is a moment when we think we might be in for an evening of cheerlessness, but the rich humour that courses through this piece keeps it warm and alive. There are many times we laugh, but they are guilty laughs, aware of the seriousness of the issues that are tackled. No life lessons are learned but the way we view the veneer of our comfort and privilege are questioned. Mother and daughter seem happy enough. Yes, their lives are mundane, but they are cosy. Or so it seems. The conversational tone of the drama cuts deep and the scalpels that slice through the heart clearly reveal the ways in which people can hurt each other.
“If you’ve got the guts to kill yourself, you’ve got the guts to stay alive”. Channing beautifully morphs from dismissiveness to desperation as she ploughs her energy into dissuading her daughter from carrying out the final act. We will her on, gripped by her performance. Jessie, the daughter, is the harder role to convey but Night handles the clashes and conflicts of a damaged soul with a natural skill. It is almost impossible to sympathise with the character, yet we do. Jessie, an epileptic since a horse-riding accident, has been suicidal for nearly ten years. “I came off the horse because I didn’t know how to hold on” carries an intense metaphoric weight. She has lost her sense of ‘self’ without hope of reclaiming it, yet the paradox is that she is not selfless in any way. It can be argued that her intentions are the most selfish of all. Night’s performance is such that you simultaneously accept and reject her predicament – a paradox that runs through the whole text.
“I can’t stop you ‘cause you’re already gone”. Channing is the one to win us over ultimately. Her concern drifts from what will happen to her, to a heart-rending resignation to the fact that she might not be able to save her daughter. Roxana Silbert’s meticulous direction, which brings out the realism, keeps us on the edge of our seat.
“How could I know you were so alone?” Mother and Daughter were with each other all the time, yet the parting question epitomises the problem. “’Night Mother” has a harrowing complexity, exposing the emptiness that manifests itself as ordinariness, and highlights the many relevant issues that surround mental illness today. That it can do this in such an entertaining and engrossing way is testament to Norman’s writing and the exceptional skill, charisma and sensitivity of Channing and Night, who hold the stage throughout.