What is, ‘a profoundly affectionate, passionate devotion to someone (-noun)’? Well, in addition to being the dictionary definition for love, it is also the not-entirely-review-friendly title for debbie tucker green’s new production at the Royal Court.
So, this is a play about love, right? Well, kind of. More like the other side of love. The love you won’t see in Disney films or on Valentine’s Day cards. It is love as the mundane and angry. It is the routine of relationships. The bickering, the arguing. The picking out of each other’s flaws. It is the boredom and the resentment. And, whisper it quietly, also the cruelty.
The idea is a clever one. A profoundly etc. follows the development (over many years) of five lives through their rows and arguments with each other. There are rows and then sudden breaks. We leap forward in time. Maybe by a couple of months, maybe by a few years. But something has shifted, there has been a development. And so, it’s another row at another time. The stakes and subjects have evolved but that frustration and resentment remains. And as life events unfold, new concerns arise.
Each of the five actors is superb and their handling of debbie tucker green’s deft writing is excellent. There’s plenty of gaps, interruptions and fragmented sentences. The pattern of speech is blunt and abrupt. These are couples that know each other. They don’t so much finish each other’s sentences, as pre-empt the next retort in the argument. Their gestures are enough. Two or three words is enough. The slights may be incomplete to us, but the couple arguing understand what is being said. And what is being inferred. They know where to hit to hurt, and they don’t need to spell it out to do so.
Showing in a radically reworked Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, it’s the audience that is plunged into the centre of the room, taking over the central floor. And, instead it is the actors who are pushed to the sides. Their stage is a thin platform that hogs three sides of the room.
The five actors skulk back and forth, like tigers testing the perimeter of their cages. When they’re not in heated exchanges, trading harsh words over our heads, they’re dragging pieces of chalk across the green-board that forms their backdrop. Some draw squares, others circles. Are these outlines of the field of play, or representative symbols of the need for a home, for completeness?
But the stage design, courtesy of Merle Hensel, is a clever one. By placing us, the audience, in the centre, it almost compels you to bow your head. You feel cowed by the rage around you.
At other times, you feel as if you’re at Wimbledon, constantly turning your head left and right as you watch the jabs and barbs volley back and forth. This is uncomfortable viewing (and I don’t mean just because of the stools that you’re required to perch on). You wince at some of the low blows, agonise and draw breath as metaphorical lines are crossed, and wonder how relationships can piece themselves back together when words that cannot be taken back have finally been spoken.
They are brief moments of tenderness, but they don’t last. And that does lead to the main challenge of the show – though the actors sustain this emotional pain superbly well, it’s tough for the audience. Conceptually, this is supremely clever – to bear witness to relationships through their rows and arguments – but that one-note touch to the show can wear a little thin, and sometimes quite quickly.
debbie tucker green, who directed this production in addition to writing it, always excites me. She is an innovator and a risk-taker. And many agree with me on that – this show was sold out even before it opened (though tickets for all Monday shows are released on the day). I’m glad I saw this as there is much to admire, though perhaps it won’t be one that I would be in a rush to see again.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to April 1, 2017
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Stephen Cummiskey.
1. Gershwyn Eustache Jnr (B) and Lashana Lynch (A)
2. Shvorne Marks (Young Woman) and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr (B)
3. Gary Beadle (Man)