Everyone pities Oedipus. No-one ever thinks of his mum. In Al Smith‘s new play, his first stage work in almost a decade, a father is stuck with what you might call a Jocasta complex: he’s sexually infatuated with his own teenage daughter. Put like that, Harrogate might sound bluntly shocking. It’s not. Smith’s skill is in sidling up to a taboo and staying just the right side of it.
It is a slippery, unpinnable piece: a triptych full of uncanny echoes and reverb. Three different women, all played by the same actress, enter the same room one after another. Sarah Ridgeway distinguishes between them but never stresses the differences. The effect is a disarming overlap – almost a feedback loop – between a mother, a daughter and a lover.
Ridgeway starts in school uniform, apparently a teenage daughter visiting her father (Nick Sidi). Smith toys with the semi-permeable membrane between childhood and adulthood, allowing one to bleed into the other. Sidi scolds his daughter for wearing mascara, even as he lets he drink alcohol. That her drink of choice is Baileys, basically a boozy milkshake, is a mark of real writerly control. Everything earns its place. He calls her ‘duck’ one minute, ‘duckling’ the next.
Where that slippage becomes unsettling is in its edge of inappropriateness: a slight sexual flicker in his gaze, tiny invasions of her personal space, a teasing flirtatious tone to his voice. It’s only occasional and only half perceptible, like a glitch or a trick of the light. As Ridgeway turns to leave she shouts over her shoulder: "I thought you were going to fuck me again." In that single second, Smith shakes the foundations of his play.
What you’re watching is like the real-life equivalent of The Nether, with role-play instead of virtual reality. It’s Pinter’s The Lover with incestual instead of infidelic urges. This is a man who pays a prostitute to play his daughter. Why? To rehearse fatherhood? Or to indulge an inadmissible sexual fantasy?
Either way, it affects the way we see his interaction with his real daughter. In her, the father sees both a child and a young woman – a teenage body becoming sexualised. No matter how above board their relationship, director Richard Twyman never lets us shake off the queasiness, and Smith only ups the ante in a third scene between father and mother. You realise, in short, that your children contain echoes of your sexual partner.
Harrogate‘s a brave piece of writing, plunging into some of the least palatable aspects of male sexuality – particularly the tendency towards young women, from which Smith extrapolates. But beneath that, it’s profoundly poetic about the passing of time; the way people, places and things change, but not all at the same rate.
Places decay – and there’s a judicious, disarming use of Damascus – but mementoes stay the same, even as memories fade. Other people age, but we feel as young as ever. Some tastes shift, others stay constant: you can grow into classical music or whisky but fall out of love with your spouse. What Smith really pins down is the way we become immune to life, because life can be cruel and horrific. So it was for Jocasta. So it is for us now.
Harrogate runs at the HighTide festival until 20th September.