A relationship in crisis and at breaking point
Sophie Okonedo as Julie and Ben Daniels as Douglas
Photo credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b017x770
Cut and pasted from the Royal Court Website:
“We thought you were dead. In many ways, this is worse.”
A small boy is driving his mother to distraction – waking at night, hearing phantom noises and fixating on his absent father. When he glimpses a figure prowling the house at night, a shadow is cast which gradually strips away his childhood certainties.
This chilling and unsettling play asks demanding questions about the things we believe and their consequences.
For more details on the production follow the link:
I first saw this on Wednesday 4 January and I saw it again tonight (Saturday 14 January), its closing night. I had already resolved not to see anything more than once this year. I made an exception for this because it was outstanding and truly exceptional.
I originally booked to see this because it was a new play by Joe Penhall. Joe Penhall wrote Blue/Orange. I don't need to explain any further! He is a genius writer and I will always prioritise seeing his new plays and, for that matter, new adaptations of Blue/Orange (I saw an all-female production only last year).
I know it is always dangerous to say this about a play that you see in January, at the start of the year, but I will say it anyway. There is no doubt in my mind that this will be one of the best plays that I will have the privilege of seeing live at the theatre this year.
It is the type of theatre I love. One static set, no effects or tricks, just three people (two adults and a child) at home. This means that absolutely everything depends on the performances of the three actors and on the quality of the writing (the playscript). Both the acting and the writing in this was first-class; I would say verging on faultless.
The play is about what happens when the father (Douglas) gets drawn into a cult, and the effect that this has on him as a person, on his relationships with his wife (Julie) and his son (Thomas), and on them as a family. It is about a relationship and a family in crisis; nearing, or at, breaking point.
The relationship between Douglas and Julie was very convincing and 100% believable. As I attended a Q&A after the production when I saw it for the first time, I knew that the two actors, Ben and Sophie, are very good friends in real life. You really felt that there was a history and a backstory there, that they had loved eachother very deeply and very passionately in the past, and that they both, in their different ways, wanted that love to survive the current test of their relationship.
The contrast between Douglas, who is chasing his dream and trying out a different life, and Julie, who is trying to lead the normal responsible life that people/society expects, is nicely drawn. I personally felt empathy with both characters.
Julie's attempts to reach Douglas, after he gets drawn into, and consumed by, the cult, eg playing music, plying him with drink, getting him to reminisce, are touching and moving. Her failure to reach him and bring him back, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, was something I could personally identify with. Losing someone you love to anything, in Julie's case a cult, in my case to depression, is gut-wrenching and heart-breaking and kills you inside.
The relationships between the father and the son and the mother and the son were both excellent too. As is the case in many families, Douglas is the more carefree and fun parent whilst Julie is the strict parent, laying down the rules and setting all the boundaries. There were some lovely moments between both Douglas and Thomas, and between Julie and Thomas, that were 100% believable and really heart-warming. This is a huge role for a child actor, but Jack Boulter was just superb as Thomas. He has a lot of stage time, and the part is pivotal. Jack carried it off brilliantly.
Quite a few women would sympathise with the fact that Julie often felt that she had two children, rather than a husband and a son. She definitely felt that she had to look after both of them and felt very much as though she was the one having to carry all the responsibilities and take the strain, whilst Douglas set aside his responsibilities to do what he wanted and chase his dream. Julie is holding on as tight as she can to a semblance of normality and surburban life; Douglas wants to throw all that out of the window and take his family off to go and live in a commune.
There was therefore a lovely contrast drawn between the free spirited adult, Douglas, a dreamer chasing his dream, and the responsible adult, Julie, who had to carry all the responsibilities and the burdens and keep the show on the road.
Douglas is White and Julie is Black, so it is a mixed race relationship, but this is not touched upon and nothing is made of it. From my own personal experience of being in a mixed race relationship, this was never an issue for us either as two individuals within our home, it only became an issue, if it ever was one, when we engaged with wider society outside our home. Douglas and Julie are, first and foremost, human beings; race is not an issue. I liked this aspect of the play.
The ending is ambiguous and open. This means that you as an audience member can write whatever future you want for Douglas, Julie and Thomas. Their future? You decide! I think this is a genius device, as audience members will bring their own baggage and therefore their own readings of the characters and the story to the play, and this way they get to decide the ending for the characters, based on their own personal reading of the characters and their stories.
An example of an audience member bringing baggage to this play is me! I have followed Joe's work ever since I saw Blue/Orange, which focuses on mental illness, at the National. I have a real interest in mental health issues and have had direct personal experience of helping someone I loved through mental illness, and experiencing mental illness myself. The first time I saw this play, I actually thought that Douglas had become mentally ill, through a breakdown or through experiencing paranoia or schizophrenia. I wondered whether this cult that he was talking about so obsessively was real in any sense, or whether it was all in his head; a delusion. I even asked Joe Penhall about it in the Q&A. And yes, it is possible to give the play this reading, it is equally possible to believe that everything Douglas is saying is real not imagined, and that the cult is as he says it is. So there are numerous readings and possibilities within this play which is what makes it so rich.
To sum up, genius writing by Joe Penhall, and outstanding acting by all three actors. Definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best plays I will see this year. Most highly recommended.
It closed tonight, but I am sure that other theatre companies will put this play on so if you ever get a chance to see the play, carpe diem!