Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 10 September, 1999

It is fair to say that the best theatre makes an impact on the head, heart and viscera of the spectator. However, this does not mean that any piece which concentrates on one of these areas to the detriment or even exclusion of the others is ipso facto a bad bit of work. Timeless, the latest work from Scottish company Suspect Culture, which arrives at the Bush straight from a lauded Edinburgh Fringe run, is all head, so to speak, but no less impressive for that.

The events recounted over 90 minutes (they hardly amount to a story) are simple: a record company executive goes to a seaside hotel for a personality assessment; after a bristly start, exec and personnel wonk go for a drink and bond; that night, sexual fantasies are played out; over a non-breakfast the following morning, the two take their awkward leave. But linearity is comprehensively eschewed in the presentation of these occurrences. Scenes are not just played out of sequence, but are repeated with slight variations or develop along different lines the second or third time around. The two characters are played (sometimes simultaneously) by four actors two men, two women who slip in and out of roles from scene to scene. Sometimes a performer will exhibit the same traits (a little timid and hesitant in Louise Ludgate's case, usually more abrasive in Callum Cuthbertson's) in each role; sometimes the same performer will play and replay substantially the same scene as the same character in two quite different registers. In many scenes we do not know for certain who is who, leaving us free to ponder on the interactions themselves.

David Greig's text (developed through a series of company workshops) is concerned with questions and answers, how we reveal ourselves through such processes, even when the questions are never explicitly asked. The quartet of performers, under Graham Eatough's direction, generate a wealth of nuances covering virtually the entire waterfront of social and personal interaction. Some of this is entirely due to our perception: the sexual dynamics, for instance, change subtly depending on whether a given scene is played by two men, two women, or one of each.

It is an astounding exercise, and more than a mere exercise. It requires both dynamic intellectual participation in the act of watching and a deal of mulling-over afterwards, and fully repays both. Ian Scott's corporate-Tardis-hotel set design was apparently inspired by the paintings of Magritte. In a way, the Magrittean text for the entire piece is "Ceci n'est pas une pipe": what we are presented with are not emotional complexities such as we experience more directly when watching, say, Chekhov they are mere depictions, but none the less accurate depictions which compel us to ruminate upon reality and representation as well as simply admiring the intricate beauty of their execution.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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