Almeida Theatre. Evening. Directed by Michael Attenborough
Joanna Laurens is, I’m told, twenty-six years old, and this is her second play. It is magnificently well performed; that much, under Michael Attenborough’s direction, may be said of it. I’m writing this entry the next morning. My recollection of Five Gold Rings is now a little hazier, a fact compounded by my less than sure sense of the play while watching it.
But it is a play that, for all its ambitious attempt at a new stage language based in free verse, is very direct emotionally. An old man living in the desert, long abandoned by his wife for another man, welcomes his two sons and their wives for Christmas. Neither couple is happy, and in the course of the action we see the wife of one, Miranda, and the husband of the other, Daniel, secretly declare their love for one another and plan to run away. Daniel, let it also be mentioned, is impotent with his wife, Freya, because, as he explains to her, he has no more love and no more lust for her. Under false pretenses that he needs medical attention, he borrows “ten thousand” from his father (who privately, to Freya, admits that he has no money). Letters from his wife, which the father, Henry, has hidden in a compartment of the stage floor (the desert, it would seem), appear to indicate that he has given away all his money to her. There is another letter, from Daniel to Miranda, that is found on the ground by Freya in a confrontation with Miranda, a letter that gets into Henry’s hands. And Henry feels bound to warn his elder son, Simon, that his wife loves someone else. Miranda, shamed, tells Daniel their love can be no more. Simon, in despair, hangs himself, and the father is left alone at the last to bemoan his fate.
This summary makes it seem that Laurens has written a play of intrigue full of stale plot devices like intercepted letters; but to say so would be to misconceive the work utterly. Laurens has built, on this odd foundation, a boldly experimental play whose language, despite the fact that it constantly teeters on the edge of the precious, is remarkably transparent with respect to the strong emotion it is crafted to convey. At first the language sounds like a literal and quite bad translation of a foreign language whose idioms run at odd angles with English. Copulative verbs are left out, the present progressive tense is the norm rather than the indicative, and there is an abundance of puns and double negatives (“No more I’m not loving you, Daniel” is a representative line). There is an interview in the program in which Laurens explains that she wanted a language other than that of realism — something that, like the language of most plays today, could be easily transferred to film or television. She wanted speech that was viable only on stage in a live performance. What she didn’t say was that she also wanted a language that was metaphorically rich (the best word for it might be “baroque”), carrying heavy freight of glanced-at meaning and at the same time opening the door wide to deeply felt emotion. Comparisons to T. S. Eliot’s plays seem to be invited, but a better avatar in this case might be Richard Crashaw, the most extravagant and seemingly undisciplined of the metaphysical poets, who sometimes makes us smile at his wanton excesses but whose ability to realize thought in the more material terms of poignant feeling is almost never in doubt.
This is what makes Laurens’s play, obscure and weird though it is, so very playable. She is in amazingly good touch with deeply realized human emotion — strong impulses to fidelity, self-aggrandizement, shame, idealism, loss of past happiness, sexual passion. Laurens is somehow old beyond her years. She has the good playwright’s innate sympathy for emotion she may never have experienced on her own, aside from finding it through the medium of her verse. Perhaps it would help to say that she has unshakable trust in her verse as the correct — the only — medium through which all this strong feeling can be expressed. She is someone to watch.