Archives for posts with tag: Play

I saw – experienced – Cleansed this week at The National Theatre. For a long time I have wanted to see Kane’s work performed. Yet, having read about audience responses to the current production – walk outs and faintings – I was apprehensive. It was difficult to approach the play objectively; every review that I have seen emphasises both audience reaction to the performance and Kane’s suicide at the age of 28, usually in the first paragraph (as of course have I).

I am glad that I experienced Cleansed. The relentless simulated violence did result in my shutting my eyes on occasion. I find physical violence, here as torture and rape, impossible to willingly witness. I imagine/speculate that Kane used violence metaphorically to reflect extreme psychological suffering, a means of externalising and communicating depths of internal distress that would otherwise remain unseen and unshareable. I can understand this approach, but I still find the use of violence to provoke a reaction problematic. Violence distresses me on a purely visceral level, and I also resent being emotionally manipulated by extreme provocation into ‘feeling’.

In terms of thematic content, I suspect that there are many possible interpretations. For me, Cleansed is about love, loss, and grief – in essence the suffering of humanness – and the impossibility of sharing emotions that threaten to destroy the sufferer. It seems to also question what in our lives, and emotions, is real or imagined, and whether this distinction even matters.

Cleansed was mesmerising and captivating for its entire 100 minutes. I was struck by the beauty of the choreography, which was enhanced by a perfectly chosen soundtrack.

It was a haunting performance, one that it will linger.





I love The Shed, a temporary (or at least that is what I assume…) theatre on the Southbank, which successfully manages to combine impressive creativity with the intimacy of a small(er) venue.

nut, by debbie tucker green (lower case deliberate), which currently plays at The Shed, exemplifies this achievement. Relatively short at just 75 minutes, nut is a moving, unsettling, and thought-provoking poetic piece. Twenty-four hours after I saw it, I am still considering what it was that I experienced last night.

On one level, the play might be read as a relatively straight-forward narrative, but then, it isn’t. The central character is Elayne, who we are introduced to at the outset as she plans her funeral. We gather that Elayne is on medication, and we presume that this is for a ‘mental illness’ as self-harm is revealed.

Elaine is never alone on stage. This is a polyphonic piece, and throughout the play we are introduced to 6 other voices and characters, all of whom are integral to Elayne’s life. What is less clear, is whether these others are external or internal to Elayne’s world and psyche. Whichever, it matters little as we watch a fragment of Elayne’s life (and suffering) unfold before us.

I loved how the dialogue overlapped, creating a seamlessness between all the characters. Elayne’s world, with all its ‘players’, felt tangibly real, and authentic. The acting was hugely and uniformly impressive throughout.

In Scene One, Elayne considers what might be said at her funeral:

‘It would start with something bout how I am…

…Not no shit about how people think I am but

how I (am) how I really / am.’

‘They’d know cos I’d tellem. What bits I did

and what bits I didn’t. I’d leave a taste, leave

an odour somethin that’ll linger longer than

the service – an emotional stain -‘

Amidst the pathos there is also much humour, and we laugh, when invited to do so.

nuts is a mysterious piece, mysterious in the sense that it is obtuse and delivers no easy answers. That is also its strength, as it thus reflects the lived complexity of life, which is never straightforward.

‘…If there ent no bell. People get confused.

It’s confusing…

No bell is like no interest. Not interested.

Don’t care – don’t wanna / know.’

‘If you had an outward view, a curiosity, a

natural curiosity like normal people – …

…by havin no bell that works – and it’s not

bullshit – is confusing. Says something

about you – …

…says confusion, says you don’t give a shit…’


I happened upon this BBC Radio 4 drama today. Written by Morwenna Banks, who is best known for comedy such as Absolutely, this is an intense and very moving portrayal of the experience of living with cancer, breast cancer in this instance. Lizzie, wonderfully played by Olivia Colman, initially has a cancer ‘scare’, which appears six months later to have been a mistaken dismissal of a malignant tumour as benign. She proceeds to chemotherapy, and to much else, including sickness, hair loss, and all the attendant anxieties and terrors that inevitably accompany her, her family and her best friend Jen.

I was surprised how moved I was by this fictional story. It felt real, believable, and so very sad. Yet there is a redemption of sorts too, and so it does leave one with a reassuring and plausible sense that life is challenging, difficult and sometimes tragic.

And so you just get on with the whole business of it, really.

Go listen…



Currently at The Print Room (a very lovely and intimate theatre near Westbourne Grove that I have only just discovered), Molly Sweeney first appeared in 1994. Inspired by the playwright’s own cataract operations in 1992, the play consists of a series of monologues from three performers: Molly Sweeney (Dorothy Duff), who has been blind since 10 months of age, Molly’s husband Frank Sweeney (Ruairi Conaghan), and the surgeon Mr Rice (Stuart Graham), who operates on Molly in an attempt to restore her sight.

This is an intense piece, superbly acted, which explores not just the meaning of sight and vision and the disconnectedness between seeing and understanding, but also addresses issues around identity, how we define ourselves, how we allow others define us, and the tragic consequences that can ensue when we change who we are, not for our own sakes, but for those we love.

The play is primarily the story of Molly, but it is also the story of Frank, whose mission and obsession becomes the restoration of Molly’s sight, and of Mr Rice, whose interest in operating on Molly takes on a personal agenda that goes beyond his patient and her needs.

A microcosm of life itself, the three characters represent the world at large, the interconnectedness and conditionality of all our relationships, and how self-serving and destructive they can become.

Thought provoking stuff…


This play by Margaret Edson (London: Nick Hern Books, 2000) is a must read for anyone working, or considering working, in healthcare. Particularly, most particularly, doctors.

Edson, a school teacher, worked in a cancer and AIDS unit, an experience that inspired the play. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999.

The play does not feel like a work of fiction, and I guess it is probably more of a fact/fiction hybrid, as presumably the narrative was informed by many individual stories Edson encountered in real hospital life. I saw the TV adaptation of the play, with Emma Thompson in the main role, some years ago, which was extraordinary. Only recently have I read the play itself, twice as it deserves a re-read, there is so much to experience in just 55 pages. It is a deeply moving, and harrowing, literary work.

Vivian Bearing, a Donne specialist, is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. The play is set in a Cancer Centre, where Bearing is currently having chemotherapy. Flashbacks piece together her story, from diagnosis, and before, to ‘now’, the opening scene, which takes place just a few hours before her death.

She opens with her musings on how the ill are greeted:

‘I have been asked ‘How are you today?’ while I was throwing up into a plastic washbasin. I have been asked as I was emerging from a four-hour operation with a tube in every orifice, ‘How are you today?’

This reminded me of John Berryman’s Dream Song 207:

‘ – How are you? – Fine, fine. (I have tears unshed,

There is here near the bottom of my chest

a loop of cold, on the right.

A thing hurts somewhere up left in my head.

I have a gang of old sins unconfessed.

I shovel out of sight

a many-ills else…)’

With some irony and a dark humour that to some extent define her personality and coping ability, Bearing concludes on the question ‘How are you?’ that doctors routinely, and often unthinkingly, ask:

‘I am waiting for the moment when someone asks me this question and I am dead.

I’m a little sorry I’ll miss that.’

The humour continues (and we are only on page 2):

‘It is my not my intention to give away the plot; but I think I die at the end.

They’ve given me less than two hours.’

Thus, from the very outset, we know where this story is heading… But the remaining minutes in Bearing’s life are so worth attending to, and witnessing. We are invited into a (at least partly unneccessarily) tragic story that powerfully highlights the gap between how doctors behave and deal with illness and what the experience of such illness might be for the sufferer.

We hear of words such as ‘insidious adenocarcinoma’, ‘primary adnexal mass’, which are dropped into the initial breaking bad news consultation. We share Bearing’s experience of the medical ‘Grand Round’, where ‘the patient’ is discussed in the third person (or merely as the condition from which they suffer), and is visible only in a medical sense.

Bearing is keenly aware how the doctors ‘anatomise’ her, armed with a ‘potent arsenal of terminology’, which is mostly incomprehensible.

Cancer and its treatment constitute a life mostly of awfulness:

‘I receive chemotherapy, throw up, am subjected to countless indignities, feel better, go home. Eight neat little strophes. Oh, there have been the usual variations, subplots, red herrings: hepatotoxicity (liver poison), neuropathy (nerve death).

But she survives the radical treatment, and indeed becomes a somewhat celebrity case:

‘I have survived eight treatments of Hexamethophosphacil and Vinplatin at the full dose, ladies and gentlemen. I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity.’

And then, with insight and poignancy she observes:

‘But I flatter myself. The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries.’

It is this insight and knowing (and seeing-through the medical profession) that makes Bearing’s story feel, not just real, but authentic.

When pain becomes a major problem, and Bearing needs aggressive pain management to ‘stand it’, she comments:

”It’: such a little word. In this case, I think ‘it’ signifies ‘being alive’.

Donne provides a backdrop throughout. Bearing was an expert on the poet’s Holy Sonnets and her life had always been suffused and intricately linked with his words, words that now become acutely apposite:

‘Death be not proud, though some called thee

Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe.’

To mention Bearing’s death at the end does not indeed betray the plot. It is an important, and tragic, ending, which says so much about what is wrong with the whole business of how the voice of the ill is listened and attended to.


Friday, July 20, 2012

When I first typed in this title, I made an error and wrote ‘Long Day’s Suffering Into Night’…. Perhaps not so surprising. Eugene O Neill’s play, currently at the Apollo Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue, is an unrelenting depiction of a dysfunctional and suffering family.

Yet, this does not necessarily make for tortured or traumatic viewing. It is a portrayal of what it is to be human, and thereby vulnerable, impotent in the face of suffering, a portrayal that feels real and authentic, with a relevance and universality that has transcended time.

Written in the early 1940s, the play was not published until 1956. O’Neill requested that it was not published until 25 years after his death. However, just three years after he died, his third wife transferred the copyright to Yale University, who proceeded to publish the play. The playwright received a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1957 for what is generally believed to be his greatest work.

Set in Connecticut, the play, which is semi-autobiographical, follows one day in the life of the Tyrone family, parents James (David Suchet) and Mary (Laurie Metcalf), and their sons Jamie (Trevor White) and Edmund (Kyle Soller). From the opening moments, there is a sense of foreboding that emanates both from the highly anxious Mary and the anxiety her behaviour generates in the family. Only later do we realise that she is a morphine addict, and that she is on the verge of restarting the habit. The tension escalates, yet Mary’s is not the only tragedy. James Tyrone is an alcoholic, Edmund appears to be dying from consumption, and Jamie is eaten by hatred and jealousy.

Contradictions and inconsistencies abound in the family. The parents love each other, yet Mary also despises James. She blames her addiction on his meanness, which resulted in a ‘cheap quack doctor’ supplying her with her first taste of morphine after Edmund’s birth. Mary wants to both live and to die:

‘I hope, sometime, without meaning it, I will take an overdose.’

Jamie blames Edmund for his mother’s addiction, as its origin coincided with the younger son’s birth. Yet Jamie also states: ‘I love you more than I hate you.’

For Mary, the drugs, which she both denies taking and alludes to frequently, ‘kill the pain’, and allow her to ‘go back until you’re beyond reach’, to ‘only the past when you were happy is real.’ Her home is her prison, and her loneliness is palpable: ‘in a real home one is never lonely.’

James is a tragic figure. He refuses to accept that his meanness has been at the root of their suffering, yet, when challenged by Edmund, who accuses him of sacrificing his health and life for the sake of a cheaper state sanatorium, there is a fleeting sense that something has registered, and he crumbles. but fleetingly. He regains composure, reaches for alcohol, and blames his upbringing. Mary colludes with this, ‘life has made him like that’, but it is not a convincing story, or excuse.

The fog that envelopes the house, that ‘hides you from the world’ is also where Edmund wants to be: ‘to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself.’

The acting is convincing and impressive. The play ends with all four facing the audience. Mary has the last word, speaking of the time when she first met her husband:

‘I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.’

The happiness appears to have long dissipated. This is a family that speaks and shouts, yet cannot communicate or share their pain. They can only attempt to relieve it, alone, through a solitary path of self destruction.