Grief

Tue 26th – Sat 30th April 2016

reviews

Emma Ansell

at 14:19 on 28th Apr 2016

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After Grief had come to an end, the lights in the auditorium had come up, my play-going partner and I had made the requisite eye-contact and head tilts necessary to communicate our immediate sentiments, I overheard a woman from the row behind remark “Well I can't say I enjoyed that... but WOW.” This nuanced judgement, reflecting on the disjunction between superficially 'enjoying' a theatrical experience and being bowled over by its affective potency, is a largely accurate snapshot into the experience that is Grief.

Grief is a slow-burner, and much of its strength arises from its careful handling of pace: it doesn't rush, but neither does it drag. There is both an indulgence and an inevitability to the way that this production progresses from scene to scene. George Kan, the director, should be commended for a production that transports the audience into the world of Dorothy, a war widow, and her bachelor brother, Edwin, with stunning sensitivity. Grief is an exploration of the isolation and pain that hides behind the British stiff upper lip.

There is no weak link in this talented cast. Bea Svistunenko shines in the role of Dorothy. Not many actors could have captivated an audience's attention so wholly while seemingly doing so little. The hallmark of a very, very good actor is that they only need to make small gestures and small looks to communicate so much to an audience. Raphael Wakefield, in the role of Edwin, delivers an entrancing, understated performance. Both of their characters are fully formed and convincing. Eve Delaney will haunt you as a striking portrait of adolescent apathy in the role of Victoria, the troubled daughter. Eleanor Colville, as Maureen the cleaner, in very little stage time manages to convey a strong sense of character.

Thornton Wilder (in a quote often mistakenly attributed to Oscar Wilde) has famously said: 'I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.' Grief is shocking because it is so familiar. Grief is an insight into the way in the which domestic tragedy is often quiet, easy to miss, but utterly devastating.

Watching Grief was cathartic. I first learnt about 'cartharsis' during GCSEs, and have liberally rolled out the word in essays ever since, but rarely have I ever experienced it. At times, I have even doubted that catharsis really exists. Perhaps it's just an academic construct designed to make Tragedy seem all the more aloof and daunting. How is it possible to feel the 'purification and purgation' of emotions that catharsis promises to deliver? What does that even mean? For me, watching Grief felt like I was very slowly, scene by scene, ever so gradually, being suffocated. Part way into the second half I realised that my heart was in my throat and I had chills, but I wouldn't be able to pin-point one particular moment that gave rise to these whole-body reactions. Rather, they were the cumulative effect of thoughtful direction, outstanding acting, and a script to die for.

It made me want to call my mum and tell her I love her.

That is not to say that Grief is a relentless trudge through pain, distress and despair. The episodic structure allows for its fair share of easy laughs and awkward, social commentary. I looked forward to Hugh, an old school-friend of Edwin's, played by Louis Norris, coming on stage. He had some hilarious one-liners, and reliably injected some warmth and humour into the production. No doubt, he was an audience favourite. Ella Konzon and Alexandra Wetherall, as Gertrude and Muriel, brought boundless energy onto the stage, and provided convincing comic renditions of 'ladies who lunch'. The momentum that these characters bring to the stage emphasises the absence of happiness, the lack of life, in the rest of production and allow us a glimpse into the life that Dorothy could have had.

The only weakness to this production, and a flaw which was somewhat inevitable, is the age difference between the actors and their characters. At times, it was slightly odd to watch a cast of students play the elderly. The only cast members whose intended age I never doubted were Wakefield, as Edwin, and Wetherell, as Muriel. In one scene, Svistunenko emerges in a ball gown, and she looks absolutely sensational. My criticism here is that she looks too good. Too beautiful. Too young. Perhaps this can be justified by the context of the scene itself: a rare celebration. However, it takes a leap of imagination on behalf of the audience to picture Svistunenko as a tired, unglamorous middle-aged woman. The set and lighting do much to counter these limitations through cleverly transporting the audience into a realistic suburban family home.

This is a play that will haunt you. Personally, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

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