Meeting an old ‘ex’ can be discomforting but in David Harrower’s play ‘Blackbird’ at Nun’s Island Theatre, it can be downright heart-stopping.
Una (Judith Rolly) turns up at the grimy workplace of Ray (Stuart Graham), the shell of a man she once kissed, slept with and ran away with years before and begins to taunt him.
This all sounds normal, even a little pathetic. But the complication begins when it is revealed that when they last met, he was 30 and she was 12. The action proceeds with Una, now twenty seven, pursuing and confronting her abuser alone except for the occasional tempering knock on the frosted glass door by Ray’s co-worker. But all is not what it appears. Set in the canteen of a grey, bland, aging office (by Owen MacCarthaigh) with flickering fluorescent lights and rubbish scattered around the room, the feeling, in this steeply raked theatre is one of frigid claustrophobia. Ray (who has changed his name to Peter and started a new life) wants her to leave “I don’t have to be here, you know” he says, but he doesn’t move, his eyes blotchy and red from sudden nervousness, her courage increasing on seeing the failure in front of her, she circles and hounds hims. But from this point of departure the action slowly twists into a different tale, not of victim and abuser, but of two very damaged people trying to fill gaping holes in their hearts, created by forced separation in a relationship that just could not be.
And it this is what makes this psychodrama controversial – can it be that a man and a twelve year old be mutually in love? Mr. Harrower explores the question with daring and provocation specifically by setting the action years after the event. At the end of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’, for example, Humbert tracks down the once nymphet to discover a grown woman and loses interest in her. In ‘Blackbird’, Una, also a grown woman, has tracked down Ray but for a different reason and it becomes disturbingly obvious why. Moral cracks in our universe makes great theatre and this explains why Mr. Harrower has garnered numerous awards (Olivier 2007) and equal disdain for this compelling, brittle play with a superb premise since it debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2005. Clearly, he has abused her “I didn’t mean to hurt you”; “You did”, but subtly sliced into the vicious attacks on stage is a remembrance of a gentle touch, a kind word, even love.
Andrew Flynn cleanly directs the strong cast with the young Judith Rolly unflinchingly pursuing her game about the stage with persuasive specificity yet modulating her various levels of anger by an unraveling vulnerability triggered by a glance or a word. Stuart Graham, recently seen as a strutting, confident rebel in Brian Friel’s ‘Home Place’ has brilliantly crafted a frayed, diminutive maneen who lives life in short, panicky breaths. Yet, Mr. Graham allows us a peek into the man he once was when he opens his heart to her with a confidence that only comes from love. Mr. Graham sidesteps any stereotypes and delivers a strong performance of a conflicted man hunted by his past embodied by the woman in front of him. Both actors are excellent listeners; they hang on to each other’s words with rapt attention even through long winding monologues and emotional tirades.
Mr. Harrower uses effective techniques for bringing the audience into the world of abused and abuser by having the attractive 27 year old, dressed in tall leather boots, black stockings erotically describe their past trysts. On the one hand you are looking at a mature attractive woman being sexually provocative and on the other hand she is describing an experience she had at the age of twelve. This schism is discomforting and simultaneously pulls and draws the audience away from the action creating an intensity that lasts from beginning to end. But it is the revelation of Una’s true feelings and his both at that time and now combined with the fact that he took advantage of her grounds the characters in a deadlocked but credible relationship that is ready to ignite and binds us to our seats.
A powerful premise may cause one to overlook a play’s flaws but unfortunately these are introduced early and often in this work. At the outset, one would think that the author had an attack of the ellipses by the numerous unfinished sentences which neither director nor actor had any idea of the thought behind, perhaps due to their sheer volume or perhaps because there were no thoughts at all and the writer was simply dragging out the initial scene so that the reveals would be all the stronger when they occurred. Why they kick rubbish around the place at one point seemed unclear, though I was happy they did because I felt trapped with the back and forth argumentation and marathon monologues that seemed to repeat previous sentiments. The ending, which I will not give away, is an unearned surprise ending (has changed from the original production) and seems tacked on. Despite these drawbacks, this production is worth seeing because it is a compelling piece of theatre with strong acting and a subject that challenges our assumptions at their heart.
Nun’s Island Theatre
Nun’s Island, Galway
Ticket Price: E20-E22
Ticket Information: Galway Theatre Festival http://www.galwayartsfestival.com
Monday July 13th to Saturday 25th July 2009 8PM
Sat 13 & Sat 25th 3pm
Blackbird by David Harrower
Produced by Decadent Theatre Company
Directed by Andrew Flynn
Cast Judith Roddy and Stuart Graham
Set Design by Owen MacCarthaigh(2008 Irish Times winner)
Costume Design by Petra Breathnach(2007 Irish Times Nominee)
Lighting Design by Adam Fitzsimons and
Sound Design by Jack Cawley