Monday, June 20, 2016

Broken Couples: This Is Living and Elegy

Tamla Kari and Michael Socha (right) in This Is Living, at London's Trafalgar Studios. (Photo: Alex Harvey Brown)

This Is Living by Liam Borrett, a first play that began at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and wound up in the tiny space upstairs at London’s Trafalgar Studios, is a lovely two-hander about a young man, Michael (Michael Socha), who communes with Alice (Tamla Kari), the wife he adores, after she’s dead. The setting is the edge of the Thames, where she was drowned in an effort to rescue their three-year-old daughter; a passing couple pulled them both out and managed to save the child but not Alice. The time frame is the few days between her death and her funeral. In different ways the play, which intercuts the strange, haunted series of conversations between a living man and a dead woman with flashbacks to their relationship, recalls Brian Friel’s early one-act Winners (about a teenage couple in the hours before their deaths), Anthony Minghella’s movie Truly Madly Deeply (where a woman’s grief over her deceased lover brings him back to her) and certainly Nick Payne’s Constellations. This last presents a series of alternative scenes involving a couple whose relationship is about to be derailed by her untimely death from cancer. Borrett is certainly conversant with Constellations; if he knows the other two as well, then the wonder is that he’s absorbed them – as he’s absorbed the work of absurdist playwrights who pointed the way for him, Pinter especially – and then created something entirely original, with its own sort of mournfulness and its own bittersweet portrayal of the intimacies of young love and marriage. You have to listen carefully to pick up all the narrative details (and the two actors have thick Shropshire accents); I bought a copy of the script to double-check my first impressions, and it’s lucky I did. The difficulties the language poses – and this, I think, is where Borrett both derives from Pinter and diverges from him – remind us of the private space of any marriage that outsiders can’t infiltrate, the familiar games they play with tacit rules, the language that couples speak between themselves that doesn’t translate for anyone else.

I didn’t catch all the details of the story while I was watching the play, but they’re all there in the text. Michael, twenty-five, approaches Alice, twenty-two, on the Tube because he’s so taken with her beauty and her energy; when he speaks to her, he falls for her humor, too, and her boldness. She’s an extrovert, unlike him. She isn’t shy about asking him personal questions, and he confides in her straight off – about the father who died when he was a baby, the mother he was close to who died a year ago, his determination to have children of his own. So when they marry and she gets pregnant and miscarries, she feels that her body has let him down and she’s willing to let him go so that some other woman can give him what she thinks he wants most in the world, more than her; her air of certainty and confidence masks a thick layer of insecurity and self-doubt. But in truth he doesn’t love the prospect of fatherhood more than he loves her. In a knockout of a scene, he gives her the freedom to walk away if it’s what she wants but assures her, “If there’s still something there, ten percent – worth getting up in the morning, then Christ, I’m willing to wait for it if you are.” And eventually she gets pregnant again and their daughter is born.

Michael Socha and Tamla Kari (left) in This Is Living.
(Photo: Alex Harvey Brown)
The play, of course, is about the depth of inconceivable loss and how you get through it, if you get through it at all. Even in death Alice is devastated that their daughter almost drowned when she looked away for a moment; even in death she feels that nearly losing the child shows an inadequacy for which she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. But from Michael’s perspective, losing Alice is so overwhelming that he even considers taking his own life, and she has to shake him out of it.

Sarah Beaton’s set is a box pooled with water and lined with rubber. I’d say it’s effective for the first act; by the second you’ve begun to think less about its significance than about the poor actors soaking their asses for nearly two hours. Borrett directed the play himself, and from this limited evidence he seems to be a stronger playwright than a director, but it may be that the space is constraining him. He works sensitively with his two actors, and some of the staging is very sweet, like a moment when Michael, lying back, lifts Alice up onto his lap and she reaches behind her to hold onto his arm. With his anxious-sorrowful face, Socha (who looks a little like Jake Gyllenhaal) is an affectingly understated performer. Kari acts a little too much (she certainly cries too much), but the two players do an equally fine job of filling in the corners of their characters. By the time the play is over you feel you know them both well.

The dramatic set-up enables Borrett to do some unexpected things, like writing an odd – awkward and touching – exchange where Michael informs Alice what day the funeral is to be and asks her what she wants to wear. Borrett gives us so much reason to trust his sensibility that we don’t balk at a scene where Michael, his back to the audience, sends a prayer that’s more like a verbal postcard to his mother, telling her that she’s about to meet her daughter-in-law and asking her to show her the ropes. This speech is delicately written and beautifully performed, and the final scene, on the morning of the funeral, took my breath away. It’s set in their bedroom, and it contains a surprise in the set – a panel slides across to reveal a realist closet holding his dress clothes – that works on us emotionally in ways we wouldn’t have anticipated. The sudden leap into (almost) realism underscores the reality of death that Alice’s reappearance has in some way staved off. But he’s not ready to accept it quite yet; the bedclothes shift and there she is in the bed. “I think it’ll be alright, today,” he consoles her as she weeps quietly in his arms, but of course he’s talking about himself. This Is Living is a small play, but Borrett is a genuine playwright.

Barbara Flynn and Zoë Wanamaker in Elegy at the Donmar Warehouse in London. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The new play by Nick Payne, Elegy (at the Donmar Warehouse), begins with a peculiarly strained conversation between two women, Lorna (Zoë Wanamaker) and Carrie (Barbara Flynn). It takes about five minutes for us to get enough information to work out that they’re a married couple, that Lorna was struck with a wasting disease that could be removed completely from her body by surgery that would also eliminate all her memory of the last two or three decades, and that, with Carrie’s blessing, it has been performed and Lorna knows who she is only because she’s been told in the aftermath. And that’s it, folks – that’s pretty much all we get for the next seventy minutes, which consists of flashbacks to their lives just before the surgery (which include their wedding). We don’t find out anything about their relationship beyond the fact that they met in a church choir when they were around forty and both teachers. And even though we’re told that the operation has returned Lorna to the person she was before she met Carrie, we don’t get any sense of who that is either – even whether at that point in her life she’s gay or straight. I’d say that Elegy is the anti-This Is Living experience, that it keeps us so insulated from the characters, singly and together, that we couldn’t care less about either of them. There’s a third character, too, the doctor (Nina Sosanya) who answers their questions and is part of the team that oversees the operation, but Payne has made her even less interesting than the lesbian couple. She’s so cautious and self-protecting as to come across as lacking in empathy until suddenly, near the end, there’s a scene in which she explains (reluctantly at first) that she champions this procedure because her eighty-seven-year-old mother, who refused it, died a terrible death. I found the rest of the play flat and empty, but I truly hated this scene, which plays on the feelings of anyone who has had to deal with the terrors of watching parents age but does so superficially, through a character who hasn’t functioned up to this point as much more than a robot.

Directed by the Donmar’s talented artistic director Josie Rourke, the actors are utterly hamstrung trying to play this stuff; even the great Zoë Wanamaker can’t make it believable. (Flynn, whom I didn’t know, comes across somewhat better, perhaps because she’s not digging so hard to find a way to animate her character.) The dialogue is post-Pinter: the language has a banal familiarity but the repetitions are artificial and meant to create a stylized rhythm. This may be unfair, but I got the impression that Payne wrote them in because he had so few ideas, a guess that’s lent credence by the last ten minutes, which merely replay the opening scene. Since we’ve learned nothing in the previous hour that would alter the way we hear this exchange, the echo of the beginning is pointless. So, as far as I could see, is Tom Scutt’s set, which showcases a glass cage upstage containing a split tree. It’s a concept in search of a play.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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