Middle-class manners and niceties are often scratched away at by playwrights who want to expose the hypocrisy and pretensions underneath. Ronald Harwood’s play, The Guests, focuses instead on a single character named Woman who attempts to find normalcy and stability in a world without convention and custom, in this one-act monologue about mental illness and loneliness.
A single metal bed frame and an upturned drawer, in front of which lies a pile of scattered cutlery, occupy the stage. Woman sits on the bed dressed in a silk blouse and petticoat. The bed and cutlery are lit independently by two cold blue lights. Her outfit is disconcerting because it’s both appropriate and incongruous with the asylum-like surroundings: incongruous because made of silk, and appropriate due to its eerie similarity to the white elastic pyjamas a patient might wear. Lucy Sierra's set plays on these combinations of state asylum and private apartment. There is a sense that we are looking at two worlds: a hospital room that still bears visible traces of an earlier alternate life.
The monologue is structured around ‘conversations’ between Woman and her imaginary guests as she throws a dinner party. Harwood tackles a range of issues, some concerned with mental illness and its impact upon family and friends, others more universal, such as loneliness and memory. Odd Sok Productions excel, however, at exploring the relationship between past and present and order and disorder, and this is largely a consequence of Camilla Corbett’s captivating performance.
Woman is a demanding role, partly because of the monologue, which must be delivered with precision, humour and confidence but also because it must be matched by a strong physical performance. For the play to succeed Corbett must convince the audience that Woman believes ‘the guests’ exist, and this depends entirely on movement and mime. Corbett succeeds to such an extent that the set itself at times takes on a incorporeal quality. Director Vivian Munn and lighting designer Christopher Hirst deserve recognition for their input in this slick and professional production.
The Guests does not attempt to explain or answer the questions it raises, and the unreliability of Woman’s narration leaves the audience to interpret the action. There is however a strong sense of dislocation and chaos throughout which leaves one grateful to be sitting on the orderly benches in the audience, able to follow social mores and convention. One is left thankful of the often unfashionable formalities and social customs that nevertheless allow life, for the lucky ones, to keep ticking along.