Leviathan – Matthew Trevannion

The first question I had about Matthew Trevannion’s brilliant new play Leviathan was one of paratext, namely: why does a drama so seemingly parochial in its subject matter have such an epic, myth-invoking title?

The invocation, it turns out, is figurative, as beneath the familiar waters of this family drama lurks a metaphorical monster: the ‘Leviathan’ of the title simultaneously representing depression, secrecy and failed escape.

The one-act play is set entirely in the back garden of a Welsh council house, in which three women from the same family (grandmother, mother, daughter) argue, bicker, laugh and wrestle with their pasts, presents and, by proxy, their futures. I say “three women”, but in fact it’s only two, as the mother, Karen (Claire Cage), has suffered some kind of mental breakdown, and become a catatonic mute. Above the house runs a train line, and it’s tempting to interpret the occasional tape-loops of trains travelling back and forth as an economic allegory: the world passing by as the lives of the council house tenants remain static.

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As grandmother and granddaughter argue and parley, various truths and conflicts rise to the surface. They both have different ideas about how best to treat Karen (who spends the play slouched in a sofa-chair that’s been dragged into the sun), grandmother Mavis is disapproving of granddaughter Hannah’s lifestyle (especially her much older boyfriend), and behind her no-nonsense, blunt facade is an obvious disappointment that she hasn’t become quite the matriarch that she’d perhaps once imagined.

Hannah (Gwawr Loader) herself is more fragile; the most complex but almost the most subtle of the three performances. Hannah variously reveals pregnancy and cancers, which may-or-may-not be fantasies devised to shock her mother from her catatonia, or even to inject some manner of drama, imagined or otherwise, into her own life. The ambiguity is key.

What I’ve just described might sound unrelentingly bleak, but in terms of its genre, Leviathan predominantly functions as a black comedy. There aren’t jokes, per se, rather, the humour manifests as a kind of character comedy, mostly emerging from Siw Hughes’ show-stealing performance as the outrageously un-PC Mavis. The language chiefly adheres to a kind of colloquial naturalism: everything is rendered in strong South Wales accents, with local idioms and slang adding flavour to the wonderfully frenetic tumble of the dialogue.

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Everything I’ve said above, though, is only one half of a more complex whole. Juxtaposed against the colloquial, micro-cosmic portrayal of familial pain is a much stranger use of language and imagery; and it’s out of this contrast between the everyday and the weird that the play’s most fascinating tensions are created. The catatonic mother Karen, for example, will often address the audience in a sort of outlandish hybrid of soliloquy and monologue. At such junctures the play’s language becomes increasingly more perfomative and abstract. Supplementing this are multiple gothic images, from a modern-gothic, almost apocalyptic description of sex “in a derelict house”, to the more traditional gothic staple of a grave-digging scene.

Leviathan’s greatest challenge, then, is in trying to parse the deeper meaning behind the contrasting images, lexicons and symbolism. Sometimes, as with the title, this is a relatively straight-forward task, at other times, however, the play can be tricky to decode. The exact significance of the three dead or nearly-dead birds (one for each of the three women) that feature in the beginning, middle, and end of the drama was a topic of heated debate after the final curtain. I’m also convinced that there’s some kind of Judeo-Christian imagery at play (the textual source of the Leviathan is the Old Testament, and the three women themselves definitely evoke, at times, a gender-swapped religious trinity), but others would, I’m sure, disagree.

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Leviathan is a strange, short stab of a play. I don’t think I laughed as hard as other audience members, but this isn’t because the play isn’t funny (it is, very), but because my own viewerly inclinations tend to gravitate towards the bleaker, more gothic interpretations of what’s happening. Either way, there’s an unnerving sense of cognitive dissonance at play between the black comedy of  Leviathan’s surface, and the emotional turmoil of its subtexts. It’s really, really good.

As a final note, it would be remiss of me not to mention the format of the production, which is the debut in Wales of the much-lauded (and hopefully self-explanatory) ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’ theatre scheme, which aims to make theatre less of a big deal, and more something that you might visit in a lunch hour, or immediately after work. The overall opinion is that this was a resounding success at the Sherman Theatre last night; the food and drink augmented the drama with a social element that encouraged both pre- and post-performance discussion amongst audience members. I very much hope that this is future of theatre, and I hope it’s not too hyperbolic to suggest that the recent take-over of the Sherman by artistic director Rachel O’Riordan signifies a coming renaissance of stage drama in Wales.

Leviathan is currently being performed at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. March 24th – 28th. Go see it!

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Mourning Becomes Electra – Eugene O’Neill

  Way back in the heady days of 2003, I saw Helen Mirren star in these plays in London, during my first term of University.  Here’s an old review I wrote about them…

 Mourning Becomes Electra is a re-casting of a trilogy of Greek plays; the ‘Oresteia’ by Aeschylus, the only extant trilogy of Greek tragic drama.  Lifting the scene from ancient Greece to post-Civil War New England, Eugene O’Neill (writing in the 1930s) contrives a series of plays that is violent, sexual and psychologically interested. 

I know what you’re thinking. Greek drama given a Freudian makeover and posited in Civil War-era America sounds like an absolute literary abortion; but I assure you, the three plays that make up Mourning Becomes Electra comprise some of the most gripping, passionate and intelligent dramatic writing of the last 100 years

The first thing I noticed, is that the writer gives a theatrical nod-of-the-head to his sources by bestowing his characters with names which phonically resemble their ancient counterparts; thus Agamemnon becomes ‘Ezra Mannon’, Clytaemnestra ‘Christine’ and Orestes is re-cast as ‘Orin’. 

“Go and see it performed!” is a sentiment I’d usually yell in the face of somebody pouring over the text of a play – Yes I would not recommend reading a play over watching it in performance, and Yes, I’m going to contradict myself here…. The fact of the matter is that reading Mourning Becomes Electra is a unique experience in and of itself.  This is entirely due to O’Neill’s copious and profuse stage directions, which are so precise and exhaustive that they create an almost novelistic reading experience.

 It is immediately clear why O’Neill had a reputation as a difficult writer to work with; many of his stage directions are impossible to realise in performance, due to the limitations of the theatrical medium.  Most of them read more like psychological asides and comments to a reader than actual instructions to a performer. This problem means that reading these plays is as important a part of realising their aesthetic identity as watching them performed.  

So, everything about these plays is incredibly intense; both emotionally and physically on the stage, and textually on the page.  The tragic self-destruction of all of the protagonists is realised through a language so passionate and violent that, even though we know how the story ends, the reader/viewer is always left both disturbed and heart-broken.  Who, for example, could resist such cruel and moving expressions of self-hatred as Orin’s rave to his sister:

The only love I can know now is the love of guilt for guilt which breeds more guilt – until you get so deep at the bottom of hell there is no lower you can sink and you rest there in peace.”

 It may sound twee in abstraction, but in the dark and bitter context of the drama, this type of expression is never over the top or unnecessary.

This is a series of plays that must be read as well as seen.  Moving, passionate and with a final sequence that proves O’Neill not only has the courage of his literary convictions, but is unafraid to tamper with source material which is often considered ‘sacred’.  But any Greek literature fanboys (if such people exist) shouldn’t be put off by this; Mourning Becomes Electra is truly Grecian in spirit – a bloody, violent romp on stage, in which one pool of blood is only ever washed away by another.

then another….

Tomcat.