Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Opened 31 July, 2009

It is agreeably surreal to see the skeleton of a contemporary bedroom laid out on the Lyttelton stage against the concrete, sand and sky of the set of Phèdre. Caryl Churchill’s 1980 play is revived at the National for a clutch of early evening performances before Racine’s tragedy. Superimposing one set on the other may suggest that ordinary, modern couples failing to communicate are as tragic in their way as mythical Greek royalty, or that their relationships are as stark and barren as the Troezen landscape, or more simply that Churchill seldom shows us situations straight-on but rather tweaks them out of realistic kilter so that we can see behind the everyday. The trouble is that, in this case, the last is both the most plausible and the least accurate.
It is a simple piece in terms of structure. In three duologues between couples in bed, each lasting 15 minutes or so, we first see Margaret and Frank having a flaming row about infidelities real and/or imagined, then Pete and Dawn of whom the former is too arid to respond meaningfully to the latter’s existential depression, and finally Pete and Margaret apparently having found a match in each other but gradually revealing the same insecurities and insularities.
In Gareth Machin’s production, the bickering between Ian Hart and Lyndsey Coulson is literally non-stop, with the pair of them shouting over each other in an impressive piece of staging, but once their antagonism has been established the scene does not tell us any more. Pete and Dawn are in a way more articulate even though for much of the scene they communicate in wordless grunts of interrogation, dismissal and despair. Hattie Morahan’s Dawn is spiritually as parched as that Greek landscape, remarking, “I don’t know if I’m unreal, or everything else,” whereas film buff Pete (Paul Ready) tries to bring her back to (his) reality by recounting the plot of Alien. In the final scene the couple at first seem to do nothing but bolster each other in loving contrast to their previous experiences, but eventually the weaknesses resurface… more ominously perhaps, this time Pete’s on about Apocalypse Now. These bedtime scenes reveal couples’ most intimate and thus most truthful faces, but it does not itself have much in the way of profound truth to offer us.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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