Tue 1st – Sat 5th May 2012


Daniel Henry Kaes

at 01:50 on 2nd May 2012



I am exhausted. "bash", Neil LaBute's series of short plays, is a work of epic proportions in both duration and intensity. I am emotionally drained. As well as the blurb's blatant lie (three plays in just over two hours does not qualify as short in my book), the title also provided me with a false sense of what to expect.

Onomatopoeic, short, even aggressive in its labial plosive and clipped vowel sound. I was expecting something fast-paced and furious that wouldn't let me catch my breath. Having picked up my ticket, I then strolled to the pub, where I ordered a Guinness ̶ a drink that demands to be poured slowly ̶ to prepare myself mentally for the intense pace that was to come. What I found, however, lurking in the intimacy of the Corpus Playroom was an intensity of a different sort: glowing-red embers of a dying fire, which only need prodding once again to burn with a renewed vigour. "bash" wasn't the promise of fast-paced action and slick dialogue, it was the sound of each new twist in these dark, dark monologues hitting you full in the stomach. Even if you recovered from this metaphorical winding, you were too scared to breathe anyway. (SPOILER WARNING: some of these twists may be inadvertently revealed in part or in whole).

Director Charlie Risius didn't let us forget that each play was not to be taken out of the context of the show as a whole: the minimalist set dressing and furniture from one section remaining onstage throughout the others, as the action moved progressively upstage. All four actors were already on stage as the audience piled in, their distinctive costumes, intermingling and creating a curious mise-en-scène. Tom Russell and Max Upton looked smart in their tuxedo and plain suit respectively, the former sporting a brave choice of socks, the latter in just socks, no shoes. Added to this were Jess Peet's black dress, as if she had been invited to a cocktail party hosted by Gene Simmons, and Olivia Emden, who was also going, but in fancy-dress as the chav from 'Misfits'. Anyway, I suspect these things are best left to Gok Wan and not a theatre review.

Max Upton began with a monologue (better stated, it was one half of a dialogue) as a businessman and father with a guilty conscience. At the drama class I teach at home in Amsterdam, I chastise the kids if they mumble, stammer and otherwise don't enunciate properly, but in Upton's case it kind of worked. His stream of dialogue became quieter and quieter (at one point I swear he was only mouthing) but this had the effect of drawing you in and allowing Upton to demonstrate a full range of inner emotion, which he was astoundingly good at. The directorial decision to have all four characters seated at all times ensured that physicality was kept to a minimum and all focus was on the raw power of LaBute's script. However, I would have liked to have heard more in the way of heightened vocal emotion, if only to heighten the contrast with the silences which filled the gaps, and which sometimes said more than the words themselves. The silence from the audience was telling too. Upton and Russell were particularly adept at creating a Hitchcock-like suspense that also captured a sense of inevitability, and I was suddenly very aware of my own breathing, or lack thereof. Upton was terrific in his portrayal of a fallen man, a victim of a practical joke, yet he left the stage to the sound of his own feet, as did all the actors after their sections concluded. After the harrowing events we heard, was it a bit inappropriate to applaud?

Jess Peet has the most gorgeous pair of eyes, and boy doesn't she know it. Although hers and Russell's play owed less to the traditions of Ancient Greek tragedy than the others, it was no less chilling. She addressed the audience directly and, after squinting at us for a bit, her gaze switched from vacant and ditzy to flashes of excitement that accompanied her nasal and cadent American accent that came straight from the sets of '90210' et al. During Russell's crescendo in his description of homophobic violence, she was unsettlingly impassive, completely oblivious to her partner's monologue and deeds. The accents across the board were of varying standards but only a pedant would let that distract from the gripping events being narrated in the form of three confessions. Emden closed with her tale of broken relationships and infanticide, and her soft voice and casual delivery absolutely captivated me, although I did notice she somehow managed to smoke the same cigarette for 50 minutes (I must tell the boys back in Amsterdam - they'll be beside themselves). Emden also demonstrated flashes of brilliance in her emotional range, which went from aloof to tears of frustration.

"bash" was the collection of plays that ensured disfellowshipment (Mormonism's slightly more stupid word than ours for excommunication) for LaBute. However, Risius and his cast played down this aspect of the play. The characters are, first and foremost, just like us, as Emden exclaims towards the end of her confession: "We're just humans!" The dark, almost Sartrean message that we are left with is an indictment on all of us and our fellow human beings, Mormon or otherwise. We are ordinary people, just like these characters, and, just like these characters, we can fall inexorably into crime and despair. Do not miss this. Just remember to breathe. I'm going to bed.


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