“a quite remarkable feat of theatre making all round”
If you could go back in time, what would you do? What would you change?
It is an over familiar and well-worn question. The subject of many late-night rambling discussions, and a theme in many more dramas on stage and on screen. So, another play in which the characters frequently ask one another the question suggests a claggy hour and a half of yawn stifling.
But don’t be fooled. Safaa Benson-Effiom’s debut full-length play approaches the question in a wonderfully fresh and deeply harrowing way. Partly because, although a leitmotif, it is secondary to the narrative; unanswered and pushed into a corner by the distressing circumstances and events that spearhead the action. “Til Death Do Us Part” is essentially a drama about love and relationships and what happens when they fracture. We don’t always have the language to express the pain and grief that is felt.
After fifteen years of marriage, Daniel (Richard Holt) and Sylvia (Danielle Kassaraté) find themselves simultaneously drifting apart and trapped together. They are a fairly normal couple, with fairly normal lives and a teenage son (Jude Chinchen) from whom they think the darker undercurrents of their marriage are hidden. When faced with their worst nightmare the couple are forced to confront the years of unspoken resentment. Unarmed, except for the rapier-like honesty which cuts to the surface, they fight their common demons alone.
Benson-Effiom plays with time. We are, at once, in the present and the past but the text yields no confusion under Justina Kehinde’s extremely slick direction that creates a world where memories and ghosts are one and the same. Tom Foskett-Barnes’ ominously evocative sound design lends touches of the supernatural, although we are still firmly rooted in reality. It is a quite remarkable feat of theatre making all round.
But at the forefront are the performances. Holt and Kassaraté dress their characters in more layers than you can count. Both of them unpredictable, they seize the danger inherent in Benson-Effiom’s writing. The portrayal of their heartache, loss, failure, regrets and fears are as blistering as the sparks that fly between them. Chinchen’s Andrew is equally mesmerising as the schoolboy, all smiles and effervescence concealing invisible cracks, playing his parents off each other right through to the tragic climax. In a novel twist the climax precedes the build-up, which paradoxically intensifies each.
The exploration of grief and blame is profound but not heavy handed. A short line of dialogue is enough to convey a decade of emotion. We live in a society where platitudes abound that try to make sense of the chaos that extreme loss wreaks. This insightful production makes them flesh. A riveting, must-see ninety minutes of theatre. If you can see beyond the trigger warnings, Safaa Benson-Effiom is a name to look out for.
“The fine cast of five deliver Ruhl’s honed script with gorgeous vivacity, tongues in cheeks and glints in eyes”
It is easy to fall into a debate about whether Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” would have the same impact as it did nearly a century ago if she had written it in today’s climate. But we’re going to avoid that digression here. Clearly, it’s influence and relevance is as powerful now as it ever was, not just in its treatment of the subject of gender, but as a satiric look at history, literature and convention. Published in 1928, it was one of Woolf’s best-selling books. And the most enjoyable. Woolf declared while writing it that “my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas”. The novel’s popularity and longevity were practically guaranteed before she even put pen to paper.
And it continues. Both ‘high art’ and gossipy at the same time it has been adapted for theatre and film, most notably Sally Potter’s 1992 release starring Tilda Swinton. Continuing the trend is Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Choosing not to compete with the big budgets, this is a playful and low-key reimagining that focuses on the humour and the subtle mischief; without trying to shoe-horn the original story into a contemporary setting.
We begin in the reign of Elizabeth I. Orlando (Taylor McClaine) is born as a male nobleman with poetic ambitions. With dubious motives, the Virgin Queen adopts him as a pageboy, and a plaything, until her death when Orlando promptly falls for Sasha, an excitable and unreliable Russian princess (a wonderfully skittish but underused Skye Hallam). Orlando’s heart is broken by Sasha, so he briefly returns to his abandoned poetry before heading for Constantinople. It is here that Orlando inexplicably falls asleep for days and awakens to find that he has metamorphosed into a woman. Completely accepting of the change, she is the same person, same personality, same intellect, and while she stays biologically female her amorous inclinations swing both ways throughout the ensuing centuries.
There is a lot to cram into an hour and a half of stage time. The fine cast of five deliver Ruhl’s honed script with gorgeous vivacity, tongues in cheeks and glints in eyes. There is an old-fashioned quality that simultaneously has a timeless feel. We are in the past and the present. They are like a bygone travelling troupe of players who have pitched up in Piccadilly. McClaine, in the titular role, is a delight to watch throughout. Star quality is etched across their performance; a performance imbued with a deadpan humour that matches the ease with which the character switches roles, genders and sensibilities.
Tigger Blaize, Rosalind Lailey and Stanton Wright play the numerous other roles and, comprising a chorus, the trio narrate the story with clarity and precise timing, overlapping the narrative and weaving threads of comedy and insight into the dramatic backdrop. At one point, following the throwaway line “… then he was she…”, we almost expect the chorus to launch into Lou Reed’s “Hey, babe, take a Walk on the Wild Side”.
All in all, though, the production is not quite a walk on the wild side. It still remains relatively safe, veering towards the shock-free traditional. It seems that the memo about safety didn’t reach designer Emily Stuart, whose costumes are daring, colourful and brilliant – a highlight of the show – which add to the sense of fun and irreverence.
This adaptation teases out the theatricality of Woolf’s novel. If the innate radicalism doesn’t quite cut through, the playfulness, the wit and the satirical undertows certainly do. “Orlando” was ahead of its time a century ago. Today it is certainly very much of the time. Make time to see it.