By Frank McGuinness
Directed by Michael Attenborough
Venue: Minerva Theatre
Date: Monday 5th October 2015
This was a fabulous revival of a very intense play. The performances were all excellent and the staging quite superb. It’s no surprise that even such a difficult subject was generating full houses, given Chichester’s reputation for putting on good work in the Minerva, and the only pity is that this production won’t be seen by a wider audience.
I was prepared for the set design this time, so there was no sense of disorientation when we entered the auditorium. Our seats for this visit were on the right side of the central entrance, again a few rows back, so we had an excellent view of the whole performance. I thought the atmosphere seemed a little hazier than last time, with smoke drifting about more noticeably, but otherwise there were no apparent changes.
When the platform was taken on and off I was aware of a low rumbling sound, and spotted a bit of movement once or twice. There were tiny lights which were obscured from time to time, but still the platform’s appearance was very well concealed. Steve spotted this time that even the fire exit signs had been blacked out, which made the place even darker. One thing I forgot to mention last time was the twisted bits of steel rod poking out from the sides of the concrete block, adding to the sense of the prison’s solidity.
I found the dialogue much clearer tonight; although I hadn’t missed much of it last time, it came across much better and there was greater clarity in the characters’ emotional ups and downs as well. I understood that Adam’s mini breakdown was triggered by the guards treating him differently, and suggesting that he’d been selected for some reason. I wondered if the captors had decided to kill one hostage to encourage other governments to get more involved in negotiating the release of their citizens, but that was just a passing thought.
Michael’s shock and difficulties when he found himself chained up in the room wasn’t quite so harrowing this time; it had lost the element of surprise, so although the performance was just as good I wasn’t quite so wrung out by it. Mind you, we were also further from him for that scene, so perhaps the distance made a difference. I was more aware of the personality clash between Edward and Michael, and while I wouldn’t care to judge anyone in that situation, I did think that Michael seemed more concerned for other people than either Adam or Edward. Perhaps they simply didn’t talk about others as much, but that was the sense I got from the play.
The second half was again stronger than the first – no disrespect to Adam (both character and actor) – and again we enjoyed the tennis match very much. The audience were considerate enough to keep the fusillade of coughing to the scene changes, and I picked up on the reference to Spartan warriors combing each others’ hair before going into battle, which made the final interaction between Michael and Edward much more poignant. Again we were left at the end with Michael’s emotional anguish at being completely isolated in the prison; this time I suspected he might pull through, but it would be a close run thing. We gave them plenty of applause, and hung on for the post-show discussion.
Rory Keenan (Edward) and Adam Rayner (Adam) returned for the post-show, with David Haig not able to make it. (I’m not surprised, given how gruelling it must be to give that performance every night.) Simon Brett chaired the event, and there were plenty of questions, beginning with how they approached their roles. Did they find themselves asking how they would have handled being in that situation? They were both more interested in how the actual hostages handled captivity, but soon abandoned that side of things to concentrate on the text and how to bring the three characters to life. All they needed was in the writing, although the set helped them a lot as well. After working on the text with Frank McGuinness in the first few days, they had been chained up in the rehearsal room from an early stage so they could get used to it; with so little need to remember actions – go over there, pick this up, put that down, etc. – their focus was almost entirely on the dialogue and the dynamic of each scene.
Although Adam disappears after the first half, his character is very strong and his absence is still felt in the second half of the play. Their fitness levels were opposite to their characters’, as Rory was annoyingly fit while Adam could get by. He was managing the sit ups better now. Both could leave the play behind them after a performance, although Adam had been caught swearing in an American accent occasionally. With the currentt state of affairs in the Middle East, the play could feel a bit nostalgic, a sort of Good Old Days of hostage-taking when it was at least possible to negotiate the hostages’ release with the kidnappers.
They commented on the changes of position during the play, and although that was done to show that the men were occasionally taken out and to show the passage of time, the main reason was to give the audience a clear view of each of the hostages through the performance. The chains are remarkably comfy – padded, apparently – but they did take some getting used to. They haven’t had any problems with them coming free at the wrong moment, such as when David, as Michael, is pulling on his chain – hopefully that will continue.
The lack of an embrace between Edward and Michael at the end was raised, and it was felt that they were so used to not being able to touch, communicating only verbally, that anything more than the hair-combing would have seemed out of place, an unlikely act by men who had been held captive for so long. Simon pointed out that not only would this play not work well on the radio, as we had to be able to see what was going on, it was also the least likely to be made into a musical (hurrah!) In covering the details of how and when this play was first put on – at Brian Keenan’s request it wasn’t produced until John McCarthy had been released – Adam mentioned that none of the freed hostages had turned up to see this production (it was a joke, honestly).
Performances weren’t as intense for the actors as the audience because they had to concentrate on what they were saying and doing, which is just as well as otherwise they might find it very difficult to keep going for several weeks. They get a great boost from the audience response too, including the silences, and they can always see us in the background as they’re always looking in our direction – they rarely, if ever, faced the back of the stage. They were asked if it was difficult to handle a performance with only two or three people on stage throughout, but for the actors each scene had a different dynamic, with characters going through so many changes that they felt like different people each time. It was an interesting insight into the production, and we left feeling glad that we’d had another chance to catch this intensely dramatic piece.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me