By Frank McGuinness
Directed by Michael Attenborough
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Monday 14th September 2015
Although this was a preview, this production already had a strength and intensity beyond many other plays. It’s one of those pieces where it doesn’t feel right to say we ‘enjoyed’ it, but it was a deeply enriching experience to have attended this performance, even with such difficult subject matter.
When we walked into the auditorium, I was momentarily disoriented by the space, which had been almost completely blacked out. The floor was carpeted in black, the back wall and sides were in black, and only a small-ish diamond of concrete in the middle of the stage created any sense of location. This sense of spatial confusion reminded me of Taken At Midnight, one of last season’s hits in the Minerva, so it was no surprise to find that the same designer did both productions. We sat to the right of the central entrance a few rows back.
The concrete square had at its centre a metal grille, and above this hung a section of grimy pipework which would not disgrace a modern art exhibition; it certainly gave the sense of a claustrophobic underground space before the play had even started. When the lights went down, we were in total darkness. Apart from a few pinpricks of light, we could see absolutely nothing until the lights came back up on a large platform of concrete on which two men were doing pushups. They were chained to the floor by their ankles, with the floor attachments being in the corner, and they each had a thin mattress to lie on. The grille was still in the middle of the floor, so for a while I thought that the stage had risen up from underneath, but Steve sussed that they had wheeled it on from behind the rear wall.
The men were dressed in grubby T-shirts and shorts and were barefoot. There was an unused chain in a third corner and two books on the floor – the Bible and the Koran, as it turned out. With the platform being raised up a few feet from the floor of the stage, the pipework was even closer and we were immediately in that small room with those men. I’m not into immersive experiences per se, but this came pretty close to that kind of theatre, while still allowing us to engage imaginatively and emotionally with the characters’ predicament.
While the stage was being set up in the darkness, we heard Ella Fitzgerald singing “Someone To Watch Over Me”, and the opening line referenced this song. This first scene was a bit surreal, as we tried to adapt to who these men were, their circumstances, how long they’d been there and so on, but what came across most strongly was the sense that they did whatever it took to survive in their prison. We got to know Adam (an American) and Edward (an Irishman) a little before the arrival of Michael, a former professor of early English and older than the other two. His emotional response to finding himself trapped in that room after being abducted from the marketplace, was very moving and hard to watch – I could feel his sense of shock and denial, and while his concern about his pear flan was funny, it was a very dark humour which emphasised the huge dislocation in his life and how enormously difficult it must have been to adjust, not only for Michael but for the other two as well.
The next scene change was covered by darkness and some eastern music, and when the lights returned the men had shifted to different corners. Adam began in the right corner and moved to the back, while Edward, who had started at the back, moved to the left corner, leaving the right corner for Michael. This change round was important: it directly illustrated that the men were taken out of the room at times, as they’d told us they were, while reinforcing that nothing else changed. Adam seemed to be cracking up about this time, and later on the others tried to help him by having a party – Michael pushed the boat out and had a large sherry (imaginary, of course). Edward sang “The Water Is Wide”, Michael offered to tell them a sad story from Old English and when Edward said they wanted a happy story, I loved the way that Michael didn’t miss a beat but simply repeated his previous line, altering “sad” to “happy” and “Old” to “Middle”. After he told his story, Adam rounded things off by singing “Amazing Grace”, and that was where they took the interval.
As they needed to remove the platform, there were several seconds of darkness before the lights went up which delayed the applause, but we had all clearly appreciated the first half. Michael Attenborough was in tonight, sitting a little behind us to our right, and I think he enjoyed the references to his father’s work during a movie discussion in an earlier scene: Adam and Edward both complained that Ghandi was too long, but Michael stood up for Attenborough’s work. The lines were funny anyway, but took on an extra layer of humour with this director.
When they restarted – more darkness – there were only two men in the room, Michael and Edward. Edward was sitting cross-legged facing his ‘wall’ and from the dialogue, refusing to eat. Michael was tucking into his meal – chicken, apparently, and surprisingly good – and in the back corner there was nothing but an empty chain. Adam was missing, and while Edward was clinging on to the possibility that he was still alive but being held somewhere else, Michael went through all the evidence which told them he had been killed. Eventually Edward crumbled and acknowledged the reality of their situation; although I wasn’t completely sure myself about what had happened and whether Adam was alive or not, it seemed important that Edward accept the loss of his friend and move on.
These later scenes were both funnier and more difficult, as the two remaining hostages tried to keep their spirits up. The re-enactment of Virginia Wade’s epic 1977 Wimbledon victory over Betty Stöve was magnificently funny, but the energy could shift very quickly into sadness or tension, and we willingly went along for the ride. We also went along for the ride in the flying car, another imaginative journey which illustrated just how theatrical this play is; these men had to use their imaginations all the time to keep themselves sane, which fits in very well with a medium which relies on the audience’s imaginative ability to keep us engaged.
The final scene showed Edward about to leave, after his release had been negotiated with his captors. This would leave Michael on his own, and both men knew how difficult that would be for him, but equally both were determined not to crack. Edward found a comb in his pocket and went over to comb Michael’s hair before giving Michael the comb to return the favour. It was a small gesture, but quite touching. Finally Edward left, walking out of the room via the steps at the front of the platform, and Michael naturally went into convulsions of grief and fear at being left alone. He recovered himself and spoke some lines from a favourite poem of his, a poem which he’d talked about earlier. Despite this, he was still in a very emotional state, and I wasn’t sure how much longer he would last in that prison. But we would never find out, as that was the end of the play.
They left the platform there as the three actors took their bows, and there was plenty of applause for their tremendous performances. No doubt there would be notes from the director as well, but what he was going to find to improve was beyond me. We’re looking forward to seeing it again, as practice always helps, especially in such a dialogue-driven work as this.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me