DAILY: October 29, 2019


Will Hochman and Mary-Louise Parker

London has become part of the narrative of my life so it only seems fitting that I have seen so many plays lately that focus not on narrative as the form and function of drama but as the subject of the plays themselves in different ways.  It began even before I got to London when I saw an early preview of Adam Rapp’s remarkable play The Sound Inside, a two-hander made even more remarkable by the director David Cromer and his actors, Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman.  It is ostensibly about a New England college professor and a student in her writing class but it is more deeply about how we not only navigate our lives by searching out other narratives to give us signals and signposts as we meander rather mapless and alone toward whatever destination that will have us, but also, if we are blessed with the curse of creativity, how we make instead a map of our own narrative and became cartographers of human cargo.  Writers alas don’t just write; they – we – perceive life as being written in real time.  To see in such a way takes the closeness of distancing – and the need, as the last two sentences have pointed out, to exist in an exalted incongruity, which is where this moving, keenly delineated production exists. 

Parker always sort of gives the same performance but her genius is that within that performance she fits into it a completely different character each time we witness her artistry.  Yes, a kind of exalted incongruity is her own artistic calling card.  There is a distancing technique to her acting that invites us to stand just outside her character and join her in observing the person she is conjuring.   Hochman is more than a sorceress’s assistant however.  He is also doing something rare, putting the reality of his work in service to the exalted incongruity of a play about creating narrative and not just representing real life.  It is in that sense that the lives these actors are bringing into existence are real in a hyper sense.  It is why the ending of the play is so profoundly moving.  It is more real than the reality of what is being presented because it has been put through the sieve of perception, that blunt omniscience of art.  Indeed, art is on some basic level that bluntness being honed to lessen the essential hurt of being human even as it  tries to understand it. 

The Roundabout Theatre production at Studio 54 Theatre has been honed itself from the production that originated at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, and it is imbued with grace.  The responsibility for that rests with the direction of David Cromer who so often as a director somehow has the poise and bravery – the utter stillness – to allow such grace to surface organically.  He allows the conjuring to occur and then melds with it to delineate it for the less graceful of us in the audience coming to bear witness.   There is always a teeming stillness – more exalted incongruity – to his work.  The lighting design is by Heather Gilbert; it is the literal imbuing of such grace. Cromer and Gilbert  provide the punctuation to the sentences that Parker and Hochman are personifying. 

The remarkable cast of “The Watsons”

My first night in London I headed to the Menier Chocolate Factory to see The Watsons by Laura Wade.  It is based on Jane Austen’s unfinished narrative Emma.  Wade sets out to flesh it out and suss out an ending, even inserting herself into the play as a character who is a playwright named Laura as the characters realize they are characters at her insistence even as they begin to take on a life of their own and insist on their own agency.  The first act left me focused on how facile it all was, how very middle-brow in that first “Mummy! Jane Austen is fabulous because  – shit! – she’s  so modern! I even understand the language!” kind of exclamatory way those of us who discover her revel in – not only going on to steep ourselves in her talent, but also our preening love of it. 

But the second act deepens – even its wit does – and becomes at times rather wondrous and batty and even belligerent.  It is meta about its meta-ness.  But it keeps its balance brilliantly as it pirouettes about in its Pirandello-like way.  The ensemble couldn’t be bettered as they get the best of the playwright-within-the-play who surrenders to their characters – her characters – and gives them the gift of her own agency as a writer.  I was finally surprisingly  moved by it.  I suspect it will move to the West End in 2020.  I hope it does.  It is directed by Samuel West.

Seamus O’Hara, Ciaran Hinds, and Fra Fee. Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Later in my first week I headed to The National to see a new production of Brian Friel’s Translations in a revival directed Ian Rickson.   It is a play about how language – its mysteries,  its weaponry, its wondrous power – can bring us together as well as tear us apart.  The play takes place in Ireland in 1833 amidst the mist-laden Donegal hills and opens with a schoolteacher coaxing the very essence of language – the naming of oneself – from a young female student who is basically mute but somehow the ballast of language is contained even within her.  We learn the rudimentary lesson that language is part of our breath itself in this first scene.  Language is breathing.  Language is life.

The teacher, portrayed by Seamus O’Hara, is a second generation Latin and Greek scholar – his father is played powerfully by Ciaran Hinds – and his family is imbued not only with rich Celtic history and its rambling myths but also the Latin and Greek ones.   The old scholar’s other son (Fra Fee)  is bilingual and has been hired to help the English map Ireland anew and take its Gaelic names and refigure them into English ones.  I used the imagery of maps earlier to illustrate  how narrative and language can shape our lives.  Friel uses it for metaphorical and dramatic effect in his masterful play about which I write a bit ore when I do a roundup of outstanding performances seen during  my London trip.

One of my favorite actors in London in in “Antipodes” at The National: Fisayo Akinade. Photo by Manuel Harlan

On another night at The National, I caught Annie Baker’s Antipodes which is set around a conference table where its characters pitch stories – narratives are the products being perfected – to a boss they are trying to please.  It an an elliptical, mystifying narrative itself which feints toward an ironic loucheness before flailing about in the earnestness of ritual.  At one point the actor playing the boss went up on his lines and said “Line! Anyone!” and was fed it by a disembodied  voice from somewhere off in the wings.  I wondered for a moment if that were part of the play.  But sweat on the actor’s face made me think it was not.  It was a deeply human moment in a play about being deeply human.  Indeed, storytelling was how we became human and rose in our own narrative arc from the animalistic. In that moment when that line was fed to that sweating human face, I realized that is what writing itself is.  Writing is being fed our lines by the disembodied voice.

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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