Can't Leave Tomorrow Alone/One Way Street ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Can't Leave Tomorrow Alone/One Way Street

Can't Leave Tomorrow Alone by Vanessa Rowell, directed by Emma Valente. Design by Kate Davis, lighting by Rebecca Etchell. With Ma-an Adriano, Jasper Bagg, Alexis Beebe, Athony Cleave and Nicola Gunn. Hoist Theatre @ Theatreworks, until February 25. One Way Street by David Grieg, directed by Chris Bendall. Design by Kirrilly Brentnall and Isla Shaw, lighting Nick Merryless. With Simon Kingsley Hall. Theatre@Risk at 45 Downstairs

The revenge tragedy, as exemplified in the Jacobean plays of John Webster or John Ford, is a place of fabulous excess. These works excavate sexual passions and political intrigue from the darkest corners of the human psyche, and play them out remorselessly in a dystopian reality that permits no redemption. In the world of the revenge tragedy, there is no such thing as innocence: everyone is implicated in the carnal realities of this fallen world, and the price for the ecstatic revulsion that its base materiality evokes is always blood.

It is a theatre of extremity and, crucially, a poetic theatre: a forerunner of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty and Howard Barker's Theatre of Catastrophe, or of plays like Peter Weiss' Marat/Sade or Sarah Kane's Blasted. Which is to say that Vanessa Rowell's Can't Leave Tomorrow Alone can't be faulted on its ambition. A contemporary inflection on revenge tragedy, it brings to its portrayal of middle-class suburbia the erotic darkness of sexual cruelty and exploitation.

The set-up - which swiftly reveals that Jason (Jasper Bagg) is having a passionately obsessive affair with his adopted Asian daughter Chantel (Ma-an Adriano) - made me wonder fleetingly if this was an "issue" play about sex slavery. Then, when the sado-masochistic nature of Jason's relationship with his wife Abigail (Alexis Beebe) unfolds, and Chantel runs off and is imprisoned by an inscrutably asexual lover, there is the issue of male violence. But thankfully, the play never pretends to portray documentary realities: the language is heightened and poetic, unafraid of attempting almost Elizabethan flourishes or of pushing beyond the tragic to a black, ironic vision of absurdity.

Whether Chantel, the spoilt adopted daughter, is any less of a sex slave than the women illegally imported into Western countries and forced brutally into prostitution, is a question that runs underneath the skin of the action, as does the issue of domestic violence. But it becomes clear is that everyone in this play is violent, including Chantel herself, brutalised by a brutal world in which the only possible beauty is transient. And even the perception of that possible beauty is, ultimately, isolating: it solves nothing. However, for all the bleakness of its vision, it is not a bleak experience of theatre.

The main problem with the play is not inherent in the language itself, which is impressive: Rowell writes tough, poetic dialogue and has a good ear for both the sublime and ridiculous. It's that she has little control of the architecture of the drama, a quality that is crucial to tragedy, even in its postmodern incarnations in playwrights like Howard Barker or Sarah Kane. The structure, even if it is fragmented, needs to move like a pitiless machine towards its apotheoses of pathos or horror or fear; but here it seems to collapse or meander, muffling the force of individual scenes.

Emma Valente directs with a spare hand, invoking from her actors the extremities the script demands: such artifice requires, paradoxically, a great deal of emotional honesty. None of the actors fails to meet the challenge, though there are times when manneredness substitutes for nakedness, loudness for passion. The stand-out revelation of the production is Ma-an Adriano, in her first acting role: she combines an electrifying physical presence with emotional fearlessness, tempering the whole with a fine irony that makes an exact sense of her role.

Kate Davis' set, like the direction, is spare: the cavernous space of Theatreworks is halved by a coarse hessian curtain, dimly lit from behind to permit glimpses of shadowy figures. The Elizabethan tenor of the play is highlighted by the neck ruffs and subtly archaic style of the costumes. The forestage area is divided by asymmetrically diagonal poles of scaffolding, which abstractly define playing spaces. The lighting - which includes effective use of footlights - focuses the solidity of the real objects that stand in isolated pools of light: the rowing boat which represents the marital bed, the lush colours of vegetables in a basket, the bodies of the actors themselves. The effect is at once sensuous and dislocating.

Scottish playwright David Grieg's One Way Street is, in contrast, by a writer in full control of his material. It's a monologue narrated by one John Flannery (Simon Kingsley Hall), an escapee from Lancashire who is hiding out from his repressively English family in Berlin while attempting, somewhat fecklessly, to live the bohemian life of a writer.

The play is structured on a simple premise: Flannery has been given a paying job and has been asked to write write up ten walks for a tour guide to Berlin. So there are ten monologues which meander imaginatively through various districts of Berlin, visiting the Jewish Cemetery, hanging out in cafes in Prenzlauer Berg or visiting the red light district. The walks become the occasion for Flannery to view a retrospective of his life.

And a fairly mediocre life it has been, he realises: he has neither money nor self respect. His family fills him with horror: he refers to it as a "black hole" and, in his panicked resistance to its collective gravitational pull, he has succeeded in blighting his own life, fleeing emotional challenge or commitment for an empty illusion of freedom. He is presently spending his time drinking too much in cheap bars, having abandoned his pregnant German girlfriend Greta (or driven her crazy, which perhaps amounts to the same thing). The play charts his his movement through self-contempt towards a sense of self-knowledge, a tentative understanding that the emotional poverties of his family need not determine the shapes of his subsequent relationships; but this is clearly fragile, a beginning of hope rather than a sense of happily ever after.

With sardonic asides on writing, relationships, the history of Berlin and political tyranny, it's a witty text which wears its seriousness lightly. And it is a gift for an actor, demanding he exercise all aspects of his art: his ability to switch instantly from one role to another in a series of dialogues, to move back and forth in time, to invoke both comic deftness and pathos. Simon Kingsley Hall is most certainly up to it.

Chris Bendall's direction is deft, moving the play quickly and seamlessly through its variations. The design uses street signs, tables, a patch of grass or a railing to signal specific locations, and is augmented by projected images, which may be unnecessary - I'm not sure how much they really add to the production - but which unobstrusively counterpoint the text. For all its comedy and undoubted energy, it's curiously meditative theatre: the stage as a machine for both memory and imagination.

Picture: Jasper Bagg as Jason and Ma'an Adriano as Chantel in Can't Leave Tomorrow Alone. Photograph: Erin Davis

1 comment:

George Hunka said...

Alison, I read the review of the Vanessa Rowell play and wonder sometimes: similar issues and plot occurrences dot so many so-called "Absurdist" American plays, like those of David Lindsay-Abaire and Nicky Silver: incest and death and sex aplenty, but distanced with a mocking irony, popular culture references, a pretense to self-conscious ludicrousness that hollows out the passions of the Jacobeans and the characters that are driven by those passions, passions that Rowell apparently takes seriously. Passions made ridiculous, here in the States, in the service of a cheap laugh.

I'm glad that somewhere somebody is writing this way. It can make us all feel a little less ridiculous, our collective fears a little more worthy of poetry.