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.
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.
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.
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!