A Woman of Substance
24:7 Theatre Festival rehearsed reading
New Century House, Manchester
A grieving poet and a runaway teenager seek solace in drugs, Blake and metrical masturbation. The scenario, though at moments incredible, carries a kind of electro-hedonism that is nothing short of compelling.
Cassandra is the poet and she doesn't keep her trade under wraps. As such, the script brims with images and descriptions which linger on the tongue and the mind's eye. The artistic chase of the muse, by way of vodka and wine, is described as 'seeking the click'. Being high on cocaine is like 'thinking but there's nothing left to think.' Jasmine, Cassandra's juvenile-in-residence, describes Cassandra's neglected flat as a 'broken drum'.
A playwright practiced as a poet, as Jonathan Cooper is, will always be keen to find dramatic escape routes for their verse. Cooper, as well as putting Jasmine on a one week poetry course, has Cassandra deliver poetic asides to the audience. The contrast that emerges between the poetic and the non-poetic is perhaps too crude and jarring. A playwright of a poetic bent might eventually be forced to find subtler ways of poeticising drama other than casting a poet and her protégée in lead roles. On this occasion, it should be stressed, the device is largely and enjoyably successful. But I fear the poet-as-protagonist is not a trick one can recycle often.
The dialogue is certainly well paced, lending an impatient quality to each character's delivery. Cassandra finds a convincing balance between warmth and bite, capturing neatly the conflicting needs of being in pain and on one's own. With time the initial suspicion and hostility between the two women thaws. Jasmine, by accident or by design, begins to melt into Cassandra's emotional radar. The respective melancholy of the two women - Cassandra is bereaved, Jasmine an escapee from a torn home - finds a refuge in nights and days spent reciting and snorting comforting lines. It is Jasmine, surprisingly well-versed in illegal substances, who gets hold of the drugs and it is Cassandra who pays for them. Given that poets are notoriously hard-up, one wonders how Cassandra is funding this poetic crack-course - funding from the Arts Council?
There is a question that cannot fail to attach itself to such a portrayal of undiscriminating drug use and that is whether drug use is glorified. There is a discernible reverence for the drug-filled anarchism of the Beat poets on display. The harsh reality of drug use, need it be said, is that for every evanescent bohemian there are several dozen tragic dependents. Cooper's depiction of drug use is almost appetising - one becomes tempted to stock up on tranquillizers and mouthwash and then spend the night deconstructing Beckett. Of course, in our liberal age, everything (rightly) goes. But I do feel that some portrayals should proceed with caution.
Ultimately though, the drugs come out on top, and their improper use is shown to lead to a shallow grave rather than a poetic zephyr. The narrative completes a neat arc, with Jasmine taking up the post the bereaved that Cassandra held at the play's opening.
Reviewer: Ben Aitken