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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Romeo and Juliet at the Sherman Theatre (2014)

The most striking aspect of the Sherman Theatre’s frenzied new modern-setting production of Rom and Jules (dir Rachel O’Riordan) is Sophie Melville’s original and stunningly complex interpretation of Juliet; a performance that functions in a space between traditional tragic ingénue on the one hand, and something more sassy, worldly and modern on the other.

Rather than contradict each other, however, these two elements converge to create a performative depth that presents Juliet as simultaneously child and adult, naive yet passionately self-determined. It’s Juliet as a 21st-Century teenager. There’s Bambi-eyed innocence when the text most demands it, but there’s also sass: some of Melville’s deliveries are pure innuendo (which sounds weird, I know, but trust me it really, really works), and it’s a testament to the actor’s skill and theatrical balance that neither one of these aspects ever comes to dominate the other.

It’s a sort of hinterland performance, one that rejects the standard interpretations of Juliet as either wholly innocent or entirely hubristic in favour of a more nuanced, if more difficult, presentation. Sophie Melville’s speech is likewise varied: in dialogue this often involves charging through line breaks and ignoring rhymes in an excited and frenetic tumble that mirrors the rhythms of teenage slang, while in soliloquy things are slowed down in such a way as to reveal a startling fragility. It’s brilliant.

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This dualistic performance in fact works as a microcosm for the entire production, which is characterised by a keen awareness and exuberant exaggeration of the play’s inherent contradictions. Rachel O’Riordan directs a first half which is unadulterated Shakespearean Comedy (feuding families, gate-crashing teens and sneaking lovers), and a second half that’s fully Tragedy, a genre switch signified by the pre-interval volta of Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths.

The staging is likewise bipartite, with a set that’s divided into two levels, an impoverished, slum-esque estate at the bottom, and a more opulent set of windows and balconies on the top, designed in such a way as to subtly suggest the shapes of classical Verona architecture in a nice nod to the play’s original setting. Initially I was wary of this “Romeo and Juliet on the estates” rendering of the drama, but I soon came round to the idea. Re-casting the uber-rich Montagues and Capulets as warring working-class gangs is particularly effective as a commentary on post-financial crisis Britain, and, let’s face it, in light of the recession, sticking to the standard presentation of the families as  wealthy elite, and then expecting the audience to sympathise with them, would have been somewhat of a faux pas. The concrete greys, the graffiti and substitution of swords for knives brings additional pathos to the drama, made all the more disconcerting by quite how modern the story seems when it’s told in this way (I hate the word “relevant”, but it’s probably apt). It would be overly simplistic to claim that O’Riordan has turned Romeo and Juliet into a play about street kids stabbing each other, and I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you must: the imagery of street crime making this a controversial rendering of Shakespeare.

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Also of note is Scott Reid‘s Mercutio, a tempestuous performance that’s equal parts volatile trickster and philosophical malcontent, it’s real fire-in-the-belly stuff. Chris Gordon is solid as Romeo, and it’s noteworthy that this is his professional theatre debut, but I would have liked to have seen some of his idiosyncrasies pushed even further; there’s a suggestion of cockiness that needn’t have been so restrained, I feel.

Anita Reynolds gets the biggest laugh as the Nurse, making her strutting entrance in a hot pink tracksuit, arms flailing and full of attitude. It’s definitely the most out-there performance, but it’s perfectly controlled, and Reynolds manages to rein in the exuberance in such a way that maintains her character’s identity without undermining the seriousness of later scenes.

So, yeah, it’s a really great production. It’s about the borders between child- and adulthood, poverty and excess, love and hate etc. This interest in dualism is reflected in everything from the set design to the performances to the music. Rachel O’Riordan doesn’t so much blur the boundaries of these things as she does violently smash them together. The resulting explosion is fierce and sexual and loud and sad and controversial and everything theatre should be. Go and see it.

Tom.