There are many plays with just two characters, but in Atman this particular facet is more literal than most. This lean little play, around 50 minutes long, revolves around A (Lucy Griffiths) and B (Matthew Spencer). A’s disconnection from life and consequent loneliness has led her to seek the help of B, a therapist; but this is no ordinary consultation.
Not only do these two not have full names, but they inhabit an uncanny world with allegedly only one language, and the mysterious and powerful Library is embarking upon a project to possess every book that could possibly exist. A has discovered a novel chronicling the story of her life, and at B’s suggestion, experiments to see if she can be the author of herself.
If this sounds like something out of a Borges short story, you’re not far off. Iain Finlay Macleod’s play – originally written and performed in Scots Gaelic five years ago – makes its English debut fully embracing the capacity of fiction to create and control.
Indeed, Borges would fully approve of the play’s Gaelic origins, obsessed as he was with neglected languages (as well as an author, he translated works from Old Norse and Old English into his native Spanish). Borges’ stories have been described as comedies of the intellect, "of an intellect doomed to trip over a banana skin" and, while dizzyingly intellectual, Macleod’s script is pithy enough to be witty as well as wise.
Lucy Griffiths (who you may recognise from BBC’s Robin Hood) and Matthew Spencer excel at breathing life into the intricate intellectual quandaries proposed by the script. Griffiths manages the not inconsiderable task of being impossibly beguiling while never distracting us from the play’s cleverness, and her self-absorbed personality has an irresistible believability ensuring that the audience’s curiosity is always in-step with her own.
Spencer is also excellent; his impeccable timing gives the piece the sharpness and verve on which the success of the piece depends. As the therapist, he is the one trying to impose structure on A’s life, which in turn attempts to control the structure of the play itself. In fact, Atman is rooted in this power struggle between A and B, between action and consequence.
This is portrayed between scenes through displays of physical movement that, although well performed, are largely unnecessary. The power-play is palpable enough in the script and its delivery by the two exemplary actors; the clashes of concepts didn’t need to be physicalized by having the actors chase each other with chairs around the stage.
Atman uses the set of Fanta Orange, which is currently playing at the Finborough during the week. But the backdrop is irrelevant: the conceptual landscapes Macleod’s language creates are both stark and striking while maintaining a not unfamiliar realism. This piece plays upon the authority of authorship and the friction of fictions to create a truly gripping drama of literary intent and dissent. Like any great story, it will remembered long after its telling.
- Miranda Fay Thomas