Family Voices (1981), by Harold Pinter
‘Tell me one last thing. Do you think the word love means anything?’
Pinter’s one act play (first heard on BBC Radio 3 and then performed at the National, followed by another run as part of a triple bill in 1982) is something of an oddity. Three voices (Voice 1, Voice 2, and Voice 3) communicate to each other in what seems like an epistolary form. This isn’t obvious but there’s certainly distance conveyed between them in what they’re saying: ‘The weather is up and down’, ‘Have you changed your address?’. It becomes clear that these exchanges are between a mother and son, with the dad (who may or may not be dead) coming in as a late third voice. It reads like a radio play, and it posts questions about how it may be performed. Do we see the other lodgers on stage? Where are the three speakers placed in relation to each other?
We can speculate that the letters, if that is how they’re communicating, are not being received, and that there is a rift between Voices 1 and 2. Has he run away? Why does she think he’s ignoring her? Why is he not bothered about an apparent lack of reply? The main point of curiosity though comes from hearing about with whom Voice 1 is living. He’s a lodger of Mrs Winters and although he initially assumes the other guests are also lodgers, he later deduces that they may all be related. Among them is a rambling nonsensical old man, and a woman who invites him into her room to eat copious amounts of buns. Her room is consumed with a sense of luxury, but in the way Voice 1 describes it, it connotes more of a sense of threat rather than comfort. It’s a proto-family in a shared space, not dissimilar to those in Pinter’s full length plays like The Birthday Party, The Homecoming and The Caretaker, in which each person assumes their own roles and peculiarities. Family Voices is an interesting, evocative ghost story.
Published by Faber
Fewer Emergencies (2005), by Martin Crimp
‘The light is improving day by day’
Fewer Emergencies is made of three acts, each a separate drama with its own title, played by three actors (joined by a fourth in the middle act). Sometimes their gender is specified in the dramatis personae but we learn little of them and their relationships other than that. It appears that they even change roles for each act. In each, the characters tell stories – however (un)reliable – in which vignettes of family life take a more sinister turn. Marriages turn sour, the routine of everyday lives is disrupted by violence, unhappiness shadows over bliss.
In the third, the story takes us inside a house where there are cupboards at the top of the spiral staircase. In them, top universities are lined up in a row, Beethoven symphonies hang on a hook, a secret draw pops open which contains the island of Manhattan, Paris is kept under a cloth to keep the dust off. There are shelves of oak trees, drawers of harpsichords, wardrobes full of cobalt. And a secret button in case of emergencies, a key hanging up to escape in an emergency. We hear that there are fewer emergencies these days, but there is a crisis at the moment, shots are being fired, and windows broken. The text is intriguing: there are parts of it which have an air of Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘list poetry’ that’s in some of her dramatic work. But it’s more absurd and memorable because of that.
Published by Faber
salt. (2017), by Selina Thompson
I won’t try to unpack everything in Thompson’s extraordinary text, which tells the story of the writer’s journey through the Transatlantic Slave Trade Triangle. She tells the audience that she first travelled to Ghana on a cargo ship, barred from filming and isolating herself away from the racist Italian crew, before going on to Jamaica where both of her birth parents and one of her adopted parents are from. It’s made up of many short scenes that take different forms, from nursery rhymes to internalising her thoughts. It’s performative and playful and, as a text, a written document of how this clearly very visual show might have been performed.
Huge lumps of rock salt play a key role. The performer instructs the audience at the start that whenever she puts her safety goggles on, the front few rows of the audience must do the same. With a sledgehammer, she smashes these rocks into smaller and smaller pieces, timing it with particular words in the text. Salt as a rock, Europe as a rock, smashed to bits. And we are also prompted to think about salt in sea water as being a physical legacy of what’s been left behind from all of the drownings that took place in the Slave Trade era. I think it’s a typical example of how Thompson takes us from hugely physical bursts of theatre to the more poetic, achieving an articulate and theatrical experience, an example of theatre-making as part of an ongoing process, and a personal and epic exploration of home.
Published by Faber
Wild East (2005), by April De Angelis
‘Every civilisation has pursued art…
We know instinctively that it enriches our lives’
I’ll be honest, I didn’t particularly take to De Angelis’ three hander. Her play sees two anthropologist doctors (who used to be an item) interview a candidate for a high-profile job in the depths of rural Russia. Set over one scene in what seems a formless play, the male candidate acts very unorthodoxly and later reveals he stole an ancient bird from somewhere he was working. It’s a corporate-set comedy in which a power play ensues between the trio. It could be taken as a guide on how to perform well in job interviews even if you are abrasive or scrutinise the questions. But, to ask an anthropological question, what’s the point of it?
Published by Faber