Ascension

Craig Hepworth

Vertigo Theatre Productions

King's Arms Salford

From 17 November 2015 to 24 November 2015

Review by Andrew Edwards

Craig Hepworth and Vertigo Theatre Productions have regularly lit up Manchester’s fringe theatre scene over the last decade. They are no stranger to the gloriously camp, the wild or the just plain wacky with their vibrant and dextrous renderings.

This is their first foray into the world of gay S/M relationships and they show us a very dark one which gets seriously out of control with disastrous consequences.

Clearly inspired, if that’s the right word, by the 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb who were so influenced by a particular interpretation of the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche that they murdered a 14-year-old boy, this piece is set in modern day America. Both leading characters, Richard and Nathan, reference this case but claim that they will succeed as superior beings living above the law where Leopold and Loeb failed.

The first act shows the way that Nathan and Richard’s 2-year-old relationship is changing. Nathan is the dominant and Richard the submissive. Nathan revels in inflicting physical and emotional violence on Richard. This includes hitting or slapping him as well as using him as an ash tray and so on.

Nathan also threatens to withhold what Richard wants from him unless he goes along with his sadistic plans. Their graphically shown scenes of naked love making are equally aggressive in nature. We also see a chronology of how Nathan may have reached his present-day twisted self with various gruesome excesses beginning with the killing of a dog and becoming steadily more murderous.

His father has to try to save him from himself but also beats him mercilessly. Nathan doesn’t react well to this although it’s not clear if his developing psychopathy was formed much earlier.

Through the course of the play Nathan tries to convince Richard that they have to kill someone to show how exalted they are. This is contrasted with Richard’s scenes with his therapist as he explores why he is so attracted to such a warped individual.

Though the violence is mostly stylised, it remains very disturbing to watch and there is a lot of it, sometimes with gory realism. The ensemble play an assortment of characters as well as acting as a mask-wearing chorus. These various tableaux do help to keep the interest in the story of two very damaged characters.

The staging in the intimate King’s Arms is terrific as one expects from Vertigo. Scenes cut from the flashbacks to the present day very skilfully and have a cinematic quality with good pacing throughout. The playing area is cleverly utilised with a raised platform to the right acting as the bedroom and another area to the left. The middle is generally the apartment’s living space.

There is much use of video which amplifies the action and offers various headline descriptions of scenes. The music is often pulsating and downright unsettling and the lighting atmospheric. After a very violent sequence involving a splendidly performed dog from newcomer Sean Roberts, we reach the end of the first act.

In act two, it is Richard’s development that we see paralleled with the further descent into violence of his relationship with Nathan. Richard’s own family background and adolescence is just as disturbed as Nathan’s in its way. Nathan has a ghostly visitation which acts as his split-off conscience and all leads to the inevitable conclusion that he has sought throughout the play although it manifests in an unexpected fashion.

The ensemble of Vertigo regulars works very well spending much of the performance semi-naked and wearing white masks. The opening mime with its sexual overtones is particularly well done. All perform their various other characters with aplomb. These include the therapist and assorted family members and male prostitutes. Worthy of particular note is the way that they form human seats for the main characters for much of the two-and-a-half-hour run time.

The play is dominated, however, by the performances of the two male leads. Richard Allen as Richard brilliantly shows us a flawed and naïve young man whose dysfunctional childhood and misplaced love for his partner convinces him to do some terrible things. Ryan McMyler has a consistent and rather draining controlled intensity. He is compelling to watch while at the same time depicts a totally repulsive character. It is a bravura performance.

Here though is the risk of the play. Can we bear to spend two hours in the company of these two awful and violent men? It’s a huge gamble for Vertigo as indeed it was for Alfred Hitchcock and Tom Kalin when they dealt with the same subject matter. Vertigo manages to keep us on board because of the brilliance of Craig Hepworth’s writing and the stunning performances he coaxes. We may not care for these intelligent but cruel people but we remain totally focussed on what they do.

Although it is a very well realised piece of theatre, it feels like the nihilism at the centre of this exploration of human degradation is allowed to triumph. It must also be an irony that the play is called Ascension as both characters actually plumb the depths of human behaviour.

This reviewer looks forward to the next zany comedy that Vertigo may have to offer us as a recompense for witnessing this powerful but ultimately rather bleak drama.