“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.
“Without being too polemical Greer gives clarity to a very difficult discussion with plenty of humour and humanity”
Throughout discussions popularised by the #MeToo social media campaign, there seems to have been a disconnect within the idea that since pretty much all women have experienced sexual assault in one form or another, it stands to reason that a whole bunch of men, and not just a handful of evil predators, have been doing it.
Perhaps the difficulty in swallowing this pill is due to the shades of horror that fall within the sexual assault bracket: no, not every man is Harvey Weinstein, but that doesn’t mean that a crime hasn’t been committed and that a woman doesn’t have the right to speak up.
Gillian Greer’s Meat seeks to navigate this very tricky arena. Max (India Mullen) has arranged to meet up with her college boyfriend Ronan (Sean Fox) to let him know she’s written about the night he assaulted her and that it’s going to be published. But Ronan claims he remembers it very differently, or is it that he doesn’t remember it at all? He’s a bit hazy on the subject.
This isn’t about whether Ronan is a villain. Rather it’s about recognising that he is, as Max puts it, “a good guy who did a shit thing.”
A story like this requires a lot of personality and Greer delivers. Mullen and Fox have a well-worn patter that feels natural and affectionate even when they’re fighting. Much of the script is taken up with friendly banter, giving the audience plenty of space to place Ronan’s transgression within a wider picture.
Jo (Elinor Lawless), manager of Ronan’s restaurant and interested party, is an excellent addition to the script because whilst she doesn’t play a pivotal role, nonetheless her character is absolutely necessary, as witness and judge to the night’s events. We’re never led to the brink of disbelieving Max, but our loyalties waver throughout, and Lawless serves as an excellent barometer in this regard. Her comic delivery is also masterful, near-on stealing the show. Set in Ronan’s fancy new meat restaurant (designed by Rachel Stone), animal carcases provide a disturbing backdrop and a constant reminder that we are in Ronan’s domain, making Max’s position all the more uncomfortable as she tries to stand her ground.
Instead of clearing the table between courses, food is thrown on the floor and smeared on the walls, which makes sense when Ronan comes to flip the table in a rage, but not a minute sooner. It’s not terribly distracting, but there just doesn’t seem to be any reason, beside it being difficult to artfully splatter food all over the stage in one table flip without covering the front row in foie gras.
The narrative drags a little in the middle, leaving me to wonder if there’s any more to say on the matter once the premise is set out, but the story does pick up and develop, and whilst there are no real surprises, the plot is- forgive the pun- surprisingly meaty.
As directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson, Meat is very much a story for the current climate. Without being too polemical Greer gives clarity to a very difficult discussion with plenty of humour and humanity.