Patrice Etienne's new play at the Old Red Lion proves a 'fine work all round'
Patrice Etienne's new play about the beauty and chaos of love will never fail to be appropriate – it's take on the slings and arrows of romance is too sharp and canny and smart for it to lose significance.
And with performances like the ones offered by Adrian Decosta and Samantha Pearl, as London lovers Daniel and Michelle, it will never be other than scintillating.
To help the story along, the two leads give voice to a range of supporting characters (parents, friends, ex-lovers); a device which lends the writing concision and focus, as well as a lovely comic texture. The lovers also vocalise their own thoughts (often between lines of dialogue), making of the play a vibrant mesh of dialogue, monologue and crisp little shards of soliloquy.
Further, by giving the mind a voice we get a clear sense of the discrepancy between thought and speech, a discrepancy that is occasionally very poignant – when we hear Daniel and Michelle saying hurtful things while thinking loving ones, for example – and that allows for real tragedy at the play's end, as we sense that their love has broken down not because it wasn't right and powerful and decent, but because true feeling was too often distorted or hidden by pride and anxiety.
There is a third body on stage throughout, who mostly fiddles with light-bulbs or responds to the action with a trumpet. In the final scene this peculiar cupid figure (played by Jill Cardo) starts feeding Daniel and Michelle lines, which they duly recite. She is assisted in this line-feeding by a further, disembodied voice (that may well have been the lighting designer), so that in total we have four voices of a sudden filling the auditorium.
Granted, the sudden introduction of two extra voices makes for an intense cacophony, but much of what Daniel and Michelle are saying to each other at this crucial point in their love story becomes unintelligible, at a moment when I wanted intelligibility the most.
Rikki Henry's direction shows a clear sensitivity to rhythm and development. The opening scenes are largely static, with Daniel and Michelle fixed to the spot, impatient bundles of energy, all arms and fingers and shoulders. Then they burst, becoming increasingly kinetic and restless as the scenes push forward to the powerful erotic ballet of their first love-making. And then a later, more feudal scene is directed to suggest a kind of mutual rape.
We are not meant to believe, I don't think, that Daniel and Michelle are actually having sex during this break-up scene, but that sex and passion, love and war, are of the same human vocabulary, borne from the shared roots and urges of being, from those celestial forces that bring the sexes together, only to tear them poetically apart, ad infinitum.
Venus/Mars is fine work all round, and I doth my hypothetical cap to it.
- Ben Aitken