March 13, 2006: Harrower, Blackbird

Albery Theatre. Directed by Peter Stein

Essentially a two-character play; a third character, a young teenage or pre-teen girl, called a “Child” in the program, comes on almost at the end. One scene — the staff room of a business enterprise, very spare, with a long table and eight or so functional plastic chairs; frosted glass in the door and along the upper walls, through which, early on, a few employees can be seen moving by; one comes in, changes out of a work coat and is gone. Late afternoon.

This is the scene in which a young adult woman, Una, comes to confront the fiftyish Ray, an employee of the firm, for his sexual abuse of her when she was twelve and he was forty. The play is beautifully yet sparely written; the text, a copy of which I purchased at a bargain rate (£5.—) in the theatre lobby at the end, is written in a kind of free verse. The acting is so skillful and accomplished, the direction so brilliant in carrying out the requirements and implications of the script, and the play itself so “right” and truthful in its discovery and rendering of deep-felt emotion, in all its complexity, that words fail me in trying to describe the experience of this work.

The topic is pedophilia — which we translate realistically as “child sexual abuse” but which comes into the language in a more literal way as “child love.” And it is precisely in the interstices of the network that interlaces the legal and the human that the dramatist has sought out, and discovered, the profound dynamics of this sad, almost tragic, story. The pace of the unfolding of this reunion, sought out by Una initially, it seems, for the purpose of confrontation, but later, as it appears, for reasons less easily defined, is rapid and sure; but there is scope for the building up of several climaxes, much physical energy being expended by both. Toward the end of this two-hour, interval-less marathon, there is a knock-down, drag-out fight, involving the hurling of trash receptacles, overflowing with the detritus of workers’ lunches, and the throwing of chairs. And as the truth of the three-months’ encounter of this forty-year-old man with a physically precocious sub-teen comes out, as it does, by degrees, the fighting eventually leads to a real sexual encounter, upstage, above the table, on the floor — but it is brok­en off by Ray, who, initially full of ardor renewed for this now very sexually enticing, deeply wronged yet still, somehow, loving woman, cannot bring him­self to close with her. “I can’t. I just can’t.”

And at that moment his name — the new name he has adopted to cover his shameful past: “Peter” — is called out from offstage by a high-pitched female voice, and the young girl, the “Child,” answers and, after a few moments, sees Una and wants to know who she is. The truth, we feel, will come out, much to Ray’s shame and discredit, though he packs the girl off abruptly.

And then, suddenly, as raucous music blasts our ears, the upstage walls are flown out of sight, black-clad stagehands come on with capacious sweepers to remove the large amount of litter, the table and chairs are summarily struck, and we are abruptly outside, in an alley. A car, driven by Ray, careens on stage and turns upstage; Una opens the driver door and pulls him out, and there is an even greater, more damaging fight, finally leaving both contenders bloody and pros­trate. And so the play ends.

There is nothing of this last, tumultuously violent scene in the play script — which I am very glad to have purchased, in order to find out the extent to which we the audience were imposed upon. Was this Peter Stein’s invention? It seemed more like a cinematic cut-to-the-chase than anything else, and it seems to me, after the no-holds-barred fight that had occurred only ten minutes earlier, super­fluous and anticlimactic. I would be interested to know what the reviewers thought of it. Perhaps it was Stein’s way of effecting a catharsis, but if so it be­tray­ed a deep insecurity over the ability of the script on its own terms to do just that.

In any case, I’m very glad to have seen this play, and I am moved to try to acquire other plays by Harrower to see if the same authentic voice heard in this very skillfully crafted play speaks in anything else he has written. It arrived at the Albery in February of this year, after success at the Edinburgh Festival late last summer. The Una, Joghi May, has been acting, first in films, since age twelve, in A World Apart, for which she garnered the Best Actors award at the Cannes and other awards as well — as precocious, one notes, as the character she played tonight. She has worked under Peter Stein’s direction before, at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003, as Nina in The Seagull. She has a wonderful resonant voice and a presence most other actresses would die for. She can probably do anything at all, and will eventually do all of it. Roger Allan, the Ray, has great experience and equally great skill and finesse. Believability in the case of both actors was very high and completely consistent. This is the sort of thing you come to London to see. And to think that I saw it from a front row, cut-rate seat (all seats cut-rate on Monday night, apparently) for a measly ten pounds! — Only a little over three times the price of the program itself.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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