The Mercy Seat (York)

The Mercy Seat is Neil LaBute’s oblique response to the tragedy of the World Trade Center. The 9/11 attacks were many things to many people. To one spin doctor it was a good day to bury bad news, to Ben in The Mercy Seat the attacks open up the potential to escape his unsatisfactory life and start again.

LaBute uses a simple device to launch a torrent of raw emotion and fluffed moral decisions. Ben works at the Trade Center, but rather than go to work as usual on September 11th he chooses to visit Abby, his mistress, also his boss. So, when the planes hit, Ben’s wife and children assume he is dead; instead here he is on September 12th holed up in Abby’s apartment, cut off from the world, trying to decide whether to stay dead and follow a new life with Abby.

The Mercy Seat is a 90-minute no-interval two-hander that builds from Ben’s indecision into a dissection of a relationship as merciless, and almost as bitterly amusing, as George and Martha’s in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Affection, sexual attraction and even gentleness surface from time to time, but never trust. And behind all the moral dilemmas lies the biggest moral failing of all: Ben and Abby are consumed with selfishness while their work colleagues lie dead or trapped in the remains of the Twin Towers.

Lesley Harcourt and Andrew Macklin are both excellent, he unsparing in revealing the emptiness of his character, she desperate beneath a veneer of maturity and control, each playing off the other perfectly, both alert to the often subtle rhythms of LaBute’s writing. Ruby Clarke’s production is detailed and beautifully paced and [Morgan Large]’s designs are evocative of 9/11 in all the missing persons posters that line the walls and the stage limits.

In the programme Harcourt and Macklin, asked about their characters, both come up with comments of the nature of “I definitely wouldn’t get on with….” or “I wouldn’t want to meet..” – and that’s the problem. If you can cope with 90 minutes in the company of such unappealing people, The Mercy Seat is a terrific piece of theatre!

The Mercy Seat runs at York Theatre Royal until 15 June

– Ron Simpson