Very early in the second half, Leo Irving, patient of Dr. Givings, explains to Mrs. Givings his philosophy on art: “I love incomplete paintings – why do painters always insist on finishing paintings? Life is not like that”. In one complete, very beautifully crafted scene, writer Sarah Ruhl sums up what this play is for her. It’s about longing and the sense that something significant is missing.
To round off director Lawrence Boswell’s second season at the helm of Bath’s Ustinov Studio, his final contemporary American play is a tease in itself. Designed to tickle the audiences fancy before even walking into the theatre, The Vibrator Play wins hands down for the title of most engaging name of the season. What it also does is introduce a whole new audience to a stylish and dynamic writer.
Ruhl’s central characters are the Givings. Dr. and wife lead a very traditional Victorian life in 1880’s America. Separate rooms, turning ones back when getting changed and secret men’s business in the work room are all part of the everyday routine. With the advent of electricity and the advancement of medicine comes a new practice in the treatment of hysteria. Described as being the, “pent up emotion inside the womb”, Dr. Givings uses his contraption, run by electricity, to produce a paroxysm in order to relieve that pent up emotion. It is here the comedy in the play can largely be found. With the treatment becoming addictive, looking for reasons to get back into the good Doctor’s surgery is almost as addictive as the treatment itself. In more ways than one, this could be considered a period equivalent to Noises Off.
The tragedy of the piece lies squarely in the lap of Mrs. Givings. Whilst all around her are being cured, loosened up and left rosy in the face, her new born isn’t feeding and is reliant on a wet nurse for breast milk. Her life is becoming increasingly incomplete as her husband’s life is becoming increasingly busy.
Ruhl has crafted a beautifully layered script that demands boldness in its approach. The first half of Boswell’s production carefully places convention and desire with finely tuned performances from all cast. This sets up the second half for a change of gear that is given largely thanks to Edward Bennett’s riotous Leo Irving. Pre-surgery and post-surgery, Bennett’s before and after are two completely different beasts, both absurd in conception yet utterly believable in execution. Rakie Ayola’s wet nurse, Elizabeth, is a performance of such power and force yet so subtly delivered, you hang on her every word.
What is needed with In The Next Room is a pace that matches the power of the surgery it portrays. With a slow burning first half and a punchy opening to the second half, this play demands a big finish that throws caution to the wind. Boswell captures the beauty rather than the passion and as such the visceral nature of the climax is underplayed.
A work of beauty and a well crafted tale that doffs its cap to history rather than embraces it.