It’s one of the leading preoccupations of new 21st century drama, the question of the gap between the generally comfortable lives led by people in the West, and the growing global horror we’re increasingly invited to witness on our many screens. It inspired Sarah Kane’s great debut play Blasted, back in 1995, and is the theme of Caryl Churchill’s latest play Escaped Alone, now at the Royal Court.
Yet this new work from Matthew Lenton’s Glasgow-based Vanishing Point company – co-produced by Battersea Arts Centre – finds a way of confronting this issue so searching, and vivid and disturbing that it burns itself into the mind at least as powerfully as either of those shows.
Inspired by an iconic Jeff Walls photograph of a wrecked room, the 75-minute show begins with a brief introduction in which we are told we are going to watch a conversation among three actors, beginning with a question which is unknown to all but one of them, until it is asked. The set shows a space like an informal hotel meeting room, with three chairs, a low table, drinks and snacks to one side, some plants and lamps. Above there is a screen, showing an image of the same space.
Then the three actors enter, sit, start to talk; two cameras watch them, dwelling in close-up on one face after another, as the images appear on screen. And soon, the conversation comes round to the central question, embodied in this set, of what we really feel when we watch human suffering on screen; why most people in Britain reacted much more strongly to the Paris shootings than to similar outrages in Baghdad or Beirut; why we watch or don’t watch internet footage of beheadings and other outrages, and how we react as we watch those repeating images of refugees struggling to reach Europe.
The actors Pauline Goldsmith, Elicia Daly and Barnaby Power develop three characters so clear, so distinctive, and yet so tightly matched to the arguments that it’s difficult to believe some of this conversation must be improvised; eventually, at the performance I saw, there was a violent row about the constant claim in our culture that only parents can really understand love, loss or the power of kinship, after which the conversation breaks up in disarray, and the actors leave.
Yet the production – with a gradually intensifying soundscape by Mark Melville, and superb lighting and projection by Kai Fischer – rolls straight on, into an extraordinary sequence of visual poetry involving water, light, dissolution, meditation, and those great, insistent images of struggle and drowning. Does this final sequence make its point a little too explicitly, closing off some of the many meanings of the conversation we’ve just heard? Possibly.
Yet the format of the show, with its lingering close-ups, and its uneasy collision of apocalyptic imagery and all-too-credible wine-bar chat, cuts close to the bone of our decaying western liberalism; its attitudes, its realities, its narcissism, its underlying failures of strength and compassion.
And this visionary, perfectly-realised show – created in association with Eden Court and the Tron – should have a long life to come, as it travels on to the Traverse next week, and then far beyond.
• Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 5 March; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 9-12 March
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
Star Rating: ****
It’s more than a decade, now, since David Harrower’s great play Blackbird first appeared, at the Edinburgh International Festival of 2005; yet still, it’s often the first thing people mention. “Tell me they’re not going to do the garage thing,” they say; they mean the fierce emotional coda added to the play by the German director Peter Stein, featuring the melting-away of the squalid factory break-room where the play’s 100-minute conversation between Ray and Una takes place, and a final scene in an underground car-park, where Una desperately tries to prevent Ray from driving away, risking her life, throwing herself at the car.
Yet it seems to me that Stein’s instinct was right, to some extent, for Blackbird is a huge play, on huge themes, that at one level seems to demand an ending to match its epic emotional scale. Ray and Una, after all, are not an ordinary pair of friends having a catch-up. Fifteen years ago, when he was 40 and she was 12, Ray had an illegal sexual relationship with Una, for which he has served four years in prison, before starting to “rebuild” his life. Now, she has tracked him down, despite his new name; but her life has been so devastated that even now, she does not know whether she is seeking revenge, or that thing we call “closure”, or even to reignite the life-shattering relationship that felt, to her confused 12-year-old self, like love.
To call Blackbird a brave play is therefore an understatement; it is a breathtakingly complex and courageous study of one of the most emotive subjects in our culture, sometimes muted, sometimes fierce to the point of violence, always beautifully written. In Gareth Nicholls’s austere, unyielding yet immaculate production – with unobtrusively powerful soundscape by Daniel Krass – Paul Higgins plays Ray straight as a die, as a man who believes every word he utters; yet questions about his reliability as a witness haunt the minds of the audience, lurching horribly to the surface in the play’s final moments.
And it’s here – as Camrie Palmer’s fine, troubled Una follows Ray out of the room, and the lights snap to black – that we feel the play’s bleak rigour; how it leaves our minds twisting in the wind, and denies both us and Una even the slightest sense of conclusion. Perhaps, though, that’s exactly where our minds need to be, on a subject where our culture demands certainty, but artists like Harrower have the courage to refuse us that comfort, and to force us to think, over and over again, until we realise that for the victims at least, this is a journey with no end.
• Until 5 March