Review: Torn (Royal Court)

Nathaniel Martello-White’s new play places the audience inside an intense session of family therapy

This new play by Nathaniel Martello-White is set in a theatre space that has been stripped down to look like your average community hall. I wondered if I was in the wrong place, as I took a standard plastic moulded chair, and waited for something to happen.

In designs by Ultz (following the playwright’s specific instructions), its protagonist Angel arranges the same kind of chairs in a circle in the space in front of the audience, waiting for her family to turn up. When they arrive, she locks the door. Players and viewers are trapped in the same cockpit, about to embark on an intensive session of family therapy.

We know that something terrible has gone on from the first line. "It happened," says Angel, confronting her mother (1st Twin), her mother’s sister (2nd Twin) and the rest of her extended family (all defined by relationships such as Couzin, Brotha, Aunty) with their silence, their reluctance to face the truth.

But the play yields its secrets slowly. The structure is almost poetic, overlapping dialogue, mixing time frames and events. It’s hard at first to grasp the intricate relationships being described, and sometimes the timing of Richard Twyman‘s tense production means it’s impossible to hear what is being said. But slowly Torn tightens its grip.

It has courage in the themes it tackles; the prejudice faced by mixed race children at the hands of both black and white communities; the rejection of her black children by a woman who can pass for white; the squalor and psychologically warping effects of poverty. Its participants act in ways that are understandable even if chilling. Angel’s relationships with her step-father and with the mother who rejects her but whom she longs to love are carefully and often painfully evoked.

As the characters talk, and events become clear, the actual staging dissolves. Strong lights flood part of the scene leaving the rest in sharp shadow where people and truths can hide; the noise of a party game sounds like screams of agony; the confrontations become more intense. In the final scenes, when Angel talks to the cousin in whom all the family’s hopes have been invested, the one who made a success of his life, you realise that the structure deliberately mimics the circularity of her thinking, the way she has become trapped by the event that defines her.

It’s compelling stuff, full (perhaps slightly too full) of ideas and insight. The austerity of the production demands heightened naturalism from the entire cast and they respond with performances that reach directly into the heart of things. Adelle Leonce‘s anguished Angel, Osy Ikhile‘s Couzin and Indra Ové and Franc Ashman as the twins are particularly impressive, but all excel.

Torn runs at the Royal Court until 15 October.