Irish playwright Nancy Harris wrote the very good adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata now playing at the Gate. Our first chance to see her own work, pure and unadulterated, as it were, provides an evening no less disturbing in its emotional undercurrents.
In a glistening North London kitchen - a wonderful design by Morgan Large in this exciting new theatre space just around the corner from the old Bush - a small boy, weirdly self-composed, appears to be about to cut off his own ear.
His heavily pregnant mother is storing boxes of Sicilian olive oil she hopes to sell on, but she’s drowning not waving. His father, a cosmetic surgeon with a serious Third World charity habit, has installed an Irish nanny to cover his tracks and help out.
No-one is happy with any of these arrangements, not least an audience, who dread another Van Gogh moment, domestic explosion, or politically incorrect accusation. Because of trouble at school - the boy has been “staring” at a little girl of different ethnicity - we seem to be re-entering Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage territory.
But this is a play not so much about parental dysfunction as the scars and lacerations of everyday contact: staring, or indeed touching, becomes a form of violation in this bizarre, hypersensitive world of misfired affection and brutal insensitivity.
There is something raw and Strindbergian about it all, a sense of pushing us to the limits of our tolerance with these people - you do feel like banging their heads together, the silly middle-class noodles.
But the acting in Charlotte Gwinner’s merciless production is absolutely first-rate, not least from Kate Fleetwood as Hazel Robinson, the injured mother who feels so lost and can’t cope. Mark Bazeley as her husband Richard is a hypocritical love rat, falsely tender when Denise Gough’s Annie the nanny from Sligo exposes her own wounds.
These, of course, were inflicted by a belt-wielding father back home in the hovel down on the farm. Richard wears his Arab tea-cloth neckerchief as a symbol of international care and concern. But in his case, charity has never begun at home.
Ten-year-old Jonathan Teale from High Wycombe plays eight-year-old Daniel (alternating in the role with Jude Willoughby) and I sincerely hope his own home life is robustly happy enough to survive the shock of participation in this fictional one.