30th April, 2016, matinee
Duncan Macmillan’s play about a struggling actress who enters rehab with an alcohol and drug addiction points to problems in outmoded rehabilitation processes but also asks much bigger questions about the notion of the self in the modern world. It is given an exhilarating production by Headlong’s Jeremy Herrin; even more of a thrilling experience sat front row of the onstage seating.
Macmillan uses theatre to represent the idea of the self being provisional and illusory. The idea of being and seeming which pervade classical plays such as Hamlet, Richard III and Volpone are also at play here; ‘To be or not to be’ seems to hover over the play. The clever craftiness at the centre of it rests upon ‘Emma’ not knowing who she is. We first meet her drunk on stage, playing Nina in The Seagull, her striking blonde hair hidden by a wig. She proceeds to lie repeatedly about her name, recounts her life story which is revealed to be merely the synopsis of Hedda Gabler, and turns to handy dramatic quotations such as ‘I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers’ - whether true to her or not - as a way of avoiding really letting people get close to her and help. Substituting her true personality with those of the dramatic heroines she is used to embodying, acting is not only a career for her, but a way of life.
In Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1996), characters are hungry for meaning in their lives: ‘[w]e work, we struggle. And we find ourselves asking: what is this for? Is there meaning?’ and ‘[w]e are born into chaos, we exist in chaos, and finally we are released from chaos’ (1997, 84). In a largely secular society, what is there to aspire to now and (as the new wave dramatists of the fifties asked) are there a lack of big causes to fight for anymore? Macmillan similarly reflects on such ideas, as the play poses the question: what if the main advocated programme for addicts endorses the relinquishing of oneself to a higher power - particularly that of God?
It’s also interesting that both Mark in Shopping and Fucking and Nina (who ‘Emma’ plays) in The Seagull prophesise the end of the world. In act one of The Seagull, Nina, performing in part of Kostya’s play, foresees a dystopian future in which the ‘moon, bright Sirius and earth shall turn to dust’ (2011, 14). In Shopping and Fucking Mark likewise envisions ‘It’s three thousand AD. Or something. It’s the future. The Earth has died. Died or we killed it’ (1997, 87). In these telling references and allusions Macmillan weaves an intricate, intertextual web, which leaves you musing upon its themes, and those of its predecessors for a long time afterwards.
Jeremy Herrin’s production brings out the visceral in Macmillan’s play and, especially from the on stage seats, there are plenty of heart-in-mouth moments as Emma’s struggle with herself and her surroundings are brought to life in a tangible flurry of set pieces. There are several striking, trip-y moments in which the stage is swamped with Emma lookalikes manifesting magically from under the bedcovers and crawling out of the floor and walls. Running around the stage convulsing, it is a genius way to convey Emma’s internal struggles in rehab.
But for the production’s adrenaline-charged, provocative effects, Herrin still allows the play to breathe. Once Emma leaves rehab and returns to her old room at her parents’ house, she has to face the people, places and things that the Doctor warns her will be a challenge. Bunny Christie’s design takes us from the clinical whiteness (almost placelessness?) of the hospital to a definite sense of place. Emma’s room is precisely strewn with make-up brushes, nail files, cassette players, VHSs, teddy bears, board games (Frustration and Boggle seem particularly apt), and even a little fake Oscar trophy. From the front row of the onstage seats (I won’t get bored of saying that any time soon!) I could see a box under the bed. I assumed it was more make-up, other knick-knacks to contribute to the detritus of childhood displayed in the rest of the room. But this room does not represent Emma as she is now and the contents of the box under the bed turns out to be the closest thing to Emma as we know her – as little as that may really be.
Herrin’s production is rounded off with some of the finest performances currently in the West End. Denise Gough is by turns frustrating, hilarious, and deeply sympathetic. She has the audience in the palm of her hand as we constantly examine and cross-examine her honesty – a game of cat and mouse where just as we think we can trust her, we’re fooled once more. Never off stage Gough puts her all into a demanding role and proves just why she won an Olivier Award last month. There is a brilliant moment in the play’s closing moments where she pauses before embracing all of the audience whilst continuing her speech. It is a moment which makes it seem as if the play has transcended itself. Matching Gough, Barbara Marten excels as Emma’s Doctor/Therapist/Mum, an island of icy composure that contrasts perfectly with our heroine’s hot chaos.
Macmillan’s play is beautifully and intelligently written, stunningly realised by Herrin and will linger in the mind for a long time to come.
People, Places and Things plays at the Wyndham’s theatre until 18th June.