While You Lie
My Romantic History
All at Traverse Theatre, various times.
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Sex and violence are pretty much all over the Traverse Two programme this year in a series of increasingly grim psycho-sexual scenarios. Craig Higginson’s The Girl In The Yellow Dress (***) sets the ball rolling, as posh girl in Paris Celia takes in Congolese student Pierre to teach him English. As the pair wade through the delicacies of pasts imperfect and present tensions, a more international language goes beyond words to reveal a series of power-plays that turns nasty.
In an international collaboration between Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, the Citizens, Glasgow and Live Theatre Newcastle, Malcolm Purkey’s sleek-looking production comes on like an art-house movie, full of highly-strung neuroses in stylish apartments.
As Marianne Oldham’s Celia and Nat Ramabulana’s Pierre skirt their way in and out of each other’s lives, however, there’s much here about an unconscious form of 21st-century colonialism that is left teasingly unresolved.
The power of language is again to the fore in Speechless (****), Linda Brogan and Polly Teale’s spare and brutal study of the much documented “silent twins”, who constructed an elaborate private world between each other which only they could burn down. As the daughters of black Caribbean immigrants in 1970s Britain, Jennifer and June Gibbons meet racism head-on at school, while their burgeoning sexuality sees them fetishised by a similarly disenfranchised American boy. In the glow of 1981’s race riots, their response to violation is as shocking as their equally ghettoised peers in Brixton.
Inspired by author Marjorie Wallace’s study, Brogan and Teale have taken an explicitly political approach to this real-life contemporary tragedy for Teale’s co-production between Shared Experience and the Sherman Cymru company. The result, featuring a pair of luminescent and unflinching performances from Natasha Gordon and Demi Oyediran as the girls, is a powerful and necessary response to those who would physically and psychologically demonise other cultures.
Writer-performer Tim Crouch has been playing holistically challenging games with the audience-performer relationship for some years now. In The Author (****), the seats of the auditorium are squished up close with the lights left on, and with Crouch himself in the thick of pre-show chit-chat. Over the course of 80 minutes, we’re led through a tale of the relationship between a play, its performers and its audience. That the play described (written by Tim Crouch) resembles the sort of gritty realist shocker pioneered by the Royal Court, the very theatre that commissioned The Author, is a deliciously telling conceit.
It then leads us down the dark entries of artistic responsibility, both to the artist and to those only too willing to buy into any old pornography that’s going. Out of this comes a vital treatise on perception and interpretation in ways of seeing as well as laying bare the potential for madness in the method.
Of course, something similar was set up by Austrian playwright Peter Handke in his 1966 “anti-theatre” piece, Offending The Audience. Even though Crouch offers a far more sensible proposition, the danger, to use an overused word, with something like this is that once a real audience member calls the set-up’s bluff and actually does engage, as one gentleman did on Friday, is that the whole thing collapses into itself. It’s a risk, but, despite Crouch and Co’s clumsy response, it’s a risk worth taking. Of course, it would never happen at the Court.
Risky, too, is While You Lie (***), the new play by Sam Holcroft, who pokes around the brutal truths of 21st-century relationships in all their gory glory. Ana and Edward are a pair of shacked-up twenty-somethings. She is an east European emigre working as a secretary for old-school misogynist Chris. While Ana loathes her own body, she can still get what she wants from Chris, whose own home life with pregnant Helen is domestic bliss on the shortest of fuses. Enter Ike, who rebuilds the bodies of war-damaged children. By the end of the play, not just bodies but whole lives will have been nipped and tucked back into shape by this gynaecological magician.
Zinnie Harris’s production lends a sleek realism to things as far as they go, with Claire Lams’s Ana a hauntingly troubled figure. Yet, as an old-fashioned war of the sexes veers off into less convincing waters, there’s something missing from Holcroft’s dissection of the beauty myth.
The play’s climax needs tightening up if it is to have the vaguely Rosemary’s Babyish effect that seems to be required. Those of a nervous or bleeding-heartedly sentimental bent should fear not, however. After everything that’s gone before, While You Lie comes with a happy ending.
As does, too, the light relief of My Romantic History (****), the latest romcom by D C Jackson, who takes a potty-mouthed leap forward from his gawkily 21st-century Gregory’s Girl routine as he attempts to get his characters to grow up disgracefully. Jackson’s starting point is how, if you don’t marry someone at university, you’re doomed to a life in purgatory with an inappropriate work-mate.
In the spirit of equally sex-obsessed adolescent fellow-travellers on TV sitcom The Inbetweeners, Jackson’s male anti-hero Tom narrates his own rake’s progress, from a drunken night with new colleague Amy and flirting with hippy chick Sasha, to rewinding on his schoolboy obsession with Alison and a heap of near misses. It’s a painfully funny and all too familiar litany of desperation and inadequacy, delivered on Chloe Lamford’s scrap-book of a set by Iain Robertson’s heroically deadpan demeanour as Tom.
Things flip on their head mid-way through, so the same awkward courtship is seen through Amy’s eyes. Alison O’Donnell rises to the occasion, as does Rosalind Sydney as Sasha. If some of the dialogue isn’t quite as sure-footed in the second-half of Lyndsey Turner’s production, there are a stream of fantastic one-liners, the best in-joke involving Robertson and a Health Education Board for Scotland TV ad, and a heart-warmingly understated ending that suggests growing up might just be better than breaking up after all.