It was always hard to sit through and it hasn’t got any easier. David Harrower’s Blackbird, a dance of death to the music of love, sexual abuse and betrayal, was a sensation at the Edinburgh Festival in 2005 and played a season in the West End a few months later.
A new touring production, as directed by David Grindley and designed by Jonathan Fensom, may be less spectacular than Peter Stein’s original version but, judging by the stunned reaction of the Kingston audience, is no less powerful. Whereas Roger Allam and Jodhi May unleashed a primal, bestial rage in the play, Grindley’s pairing of Robert Daws and Dawn Steele is more “average.”
By this I do not mean that Daws as middle-aged Ray and Steele as 27-year-old Una – and it is freshly important, I think, that Una is unequivocally Scottish this time round -- give lesser performances. They just seem more in scale with our own humanity and emotionalism, which makes their characters’ history and situation all the more disturbing.
Fifteen years after their sexual relationship, Una has tracked Ray down to his place of work in a bleak factory recreation room, littered with rubbish. Ray has served a prison sentence for his crime of seducing a minor, and has changed his name by deed poll.
Una has pursued him, not out of a desire for revenge, or vindication, but in search of closure, or at least understanding.
Their renewed journey together is clearly prompted by Una’s attempt to understand as a woman what she feared as a girl, while Ray has tried to move on (so we think) and is terrified of revisiting his basic instincts. This is what makes the play so much more complex than a case study in paedophilia, or even subverted gender roles. Harrower’s script has been justly likened to both David Mamet’s Oleanna and Nabokov’s Lolita.
It occupies that uneasy emotional hinterland of abuse, exploitation and seduction that characterises, to a greater or lesser extent, all of our dealings in the human heart. To hear Robert Daws, a fine light comedy actor, crack open with this confessional acknowledgement, is just as moving as it was to hear Roger Allam couch the same sentiments in his more heroic, cultured and resonant delivery.
Dawn Steele has expunged all girlishness, so that as Una she has grown faster towards Ray than he has grown away from her. Like the blackbird in the Lennon and McCartney song, she took her broken wings and learnt to fly; all her life she was only waiting for this moment to arrive.
Grindley’s direction measures this progress to perfection and, after the shocking final twist, he makes a double virtue of the no doubt economic necessity of dispensing with Stein’s cataclysmic coda in the car park.