Two people in a room locked in a battle of wills; menace under a veneer of (relative) politeness; conversation peppered with mundanities; phrases cut off; topics shift; and the air hums with tension. They could leave, but don’t. Harold Pinter? No, it’s David Harrower and Blackbird, the latest from the feisty 23rd Productions in La Boite’s second offering for their 2010 Indie series.
The ghost of Pinter lurks around the edges of this Brit psycho-drama and 2007 Olivier Awards Best Play winner from Scotsman, Harrower. It’s easy to see why. There’s something terrible haunting the protagonists, Una and Ray; something from their past has taken over their lives. Obsession, betrayal, blame, grieving, a fling at healing – all drive the play’s action as each rakes over events from years long gone. Every beat is masterfully crafted into a duet that probes society’s notions of morality set in counterpoint with individual desire.
And then there’s Pinter and memory: As I remember it, so it happened, the old master wrote in Old Times (1971). The same obsession with memory and its unreliability is here in Blackbird. Shards of Una and Ray’s past lives are recollected, pieced together, and retold. As Will Eno does in his story-telling Thom Pain, David Harrower in Blackbird probes and seizes the audience’s imagination, challenges its assumptions, and moves on. What’s left out is more emphatic, finally, than what we’ve been told. Whose truth is true? Which story do we trust? Should we? Can we? Who, ultimately is victim, and who’s the oppressor?
Ray is a convicted child-abuser, and Una the child he abused so many years before. Neither is a particularly likeable character and, ultimately, we don’t really care for one more than the other. It’s a play that questions received moral values, and the conclusions – if there are any – are far from simplistic. Ray and Una’s humanity and Harrower’s clever text subverts the all too-easy relegation of character to the ‘good’ or the ‘bad.’ Ultimately each is victim to themselves and to each other. Neither seems to care very much for the lives they now lead; each has a strong streak of self-loathing. But Blackbird is no depressing, self-indulgent psycho-probe, but a piece of robust theatre full of crackling intensity, intrigue, and the complexity of character.
Blackbird is no depressing, self-indulgent, psycho-probe, but a piece of robust theatre full of crackling intensity, intrigue, and the complexity of character
Ray and Una inhabit a haunting ground, ostensibly the lunch-room (from hell) of a business somewhere, we assume, in one of those familiar, faceless industrial estates. It’s a liminal space, a wasteland: ‘Do you live here?’ ‘What do you do?’ Una asks Ray as she looks around the overflowing garbage bins and litter that seems to cover every surface in the awful room. Pretty soon we find out that the wreckage of their lives is as real as the mess around them, and the flawed pair are no match for their own invisible baggage, the burdensome ghosts they’ve carried around for 15 years. Blackbird is about the encounter at the end of a day between Ray and Una. Despite moments of tenderness and warmth, their obsession with and terrible playing out of the past will bring no peace. The final line of the play, “Ray!” is shouted by Una as she follows him out and away. It echoes round an empty space. We know the haunting will go on.
Kathryn Fray as Una was simply terrific. She doesn’t put a boot-clad foot wrong. Her Una is revenger in full-flight with a thoroughly contemporary attitude. She’s neverthless a fragile thing at heart. The cracks in Una will never be healed, and the answers she so desperately craves – the rationale for a life lost – will never be answered. Una tracks down Ray, the only person from her past who might provide some clues – someone she can, perhaps, punish for her loss. Like the building he inhabits, Ray is also nondescript, boring, clad in cheap clothes, anxiety-ridden, eyes red-rimmed and sore; the kind of unfortunate bloke that has soft, permanently sweaty hands. After a slowish start, Daniel Murphy nailed all the insecurity, anxiety and anguish that is Ray’s constant sorrow and burden.
Murphy and Fray are a marvellously well-cast duo in these two plum roles; their already-confident sparring is sweetly nuanced and ripe for finesseing across the season.
Mark Conaghan‘s direction is beautifully unadorned – just right. It appears he has given the stage to the actors and let them fly – something ‘an actor’s director’ does. Mark is also an accomplished actor, and I imagine he cast and developed his production to give his actors the freedom and confidence he knew the play demanded. Conaghan directs them well, creating a tight, well-paced production of a very difficult text. (Aside: It’s one of those fragmented, overlapping dialogue pieces that must be hell to learn.) Apart from an oddly colourful lighting change during Una’s 7 minute monologue on a key event from the past, the director smartly puts the focus where it needs to be and with a minimum of fuss and distraction – on Ray and Una.
Conaghan has also directed really satisfying work from his production design team: Jason Glenwright (lighting), Kade Sproule (set), and Chris Perren (composer) have created and enhanced the visual and aural world for Blackbird. The landscapes of the mind and the heart, as well as the physical space of the (literal) wasteland surrounding Una and Ray are nuanced, unobtrusive, and beautifully judged.
If you like clarity in a production, watching good actors at work on a script that’s imaginative, intelligent, and has a big dollop of challenge, then Blackbird is for you. It’s 90 minutes or so of super theatre.
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