Orange Tree Theatre
From 02 November 2017 to 02 December 2017
Review by Howard Loxton
A man has been called to a meeting with his former wife at a cemetery where their son is buried. He has been told that toxicity in the soil means some burials have to be relocated, including that of their child. In part, that is the poison of the play’s title but the play is itself a study of the toxic effect of that death on the child’s parents.
Lot Vekemans’s script, translated from the Dutch by Rina Vergano, is wonderfully natural. Her characters speak in short phrases of thought length and Zubin Varla and Claire Price play them beautifully, ideas forming as they speak them. They are unnamed, just called He and She, but they are distinct individuals, not tokens to represent all parents: hurt and troubled people portrayed with truth and emotional intensity.
Their meeting is clearly uncomfortable and awkward, especially when the person they are meeting with doesn’t turn up, but Ms Vekemans is slow at disclosure. Relevant facts and background story emerge only gradually. This couple have been out of touch for ten years (nine years corrects He). Neither knows what has happened to the other in those years, perhaps didn’t know even when they were together. Making such discoveries is part of the pleasure of this play, piecing the story together. Both their present and their past relationships are explored simultaneously with some inconsistencies that are there for a purpose.
“We’re a man and a woman who’ve lost a child,” he says, then amending continues, “who first lost a child and then each other. Or maybe I should say: who first lost a child, then themselves and then each other.”
For her, suffering seems to have become an addiction but, though he has managed to move on, his pain at times seems even deeper. She still doesn’t understand what went wrong between them. He tries to remember the good things, the happy times. He’s a journalist and now writing a book based on his experience; her hearing that provokes a bitchy outburst but her anger seems fuelled by her vulnerability.
Zubin Varla’s He seems more controlled but there is a point when he expresses himself with such passion that when he pauses he almost loses his voice. It is extremely moving.
Director Paul Miller shapes the production carefully. The pace is natural, pauses and silence used effectively. We wait while a vending machine goes through the mechanism of delivering a coffee; there is time for the audience and these ex-partners to assess situations. A memory of their son’s last moments is very simply delivered, making its emotional impact even stronger. He even sings a verse of “It Must Be So” from Bernstein’s Candide in a moment of near reconciliation—but there is not one touch of sentimentality in this study of the effects of the loss.
Do we ever let go of the past? Is there a right to happiness? Losing a child or lover or once-loved in a break-up and handling real grief isn’t easy. Poison shows one particular couple facing those problems, problems echoed at times in all our lives, but it isn’t depressing, there is something strangely uplifting about this production.