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Atman

Iain Finlay Macleod
Finborough Theatre, London
(2011)

Mathew Spencer and Lucy Griffiths in Atman at Finborough Theatre

The Sunday and Monday night slot at the Finborough Theatre is the ideal setting for a play about the very nature of reality. For two nights a week, the space occupied by the main show - currently Sally Woodcock's Fanta Orange - is opened up to a second production.

Here, we find Atman performed on the set of Fanta Orange, a sparse stage with the raised platform of what we assume to be an African lodge. Immediately the characters seem detached from their surroundings, creating just the uncanny feeling Scottish playwright Iain Finlay Macleod's philosophical musings demand.

Shut safely away in the upstairs space above the Finborough Wine Café, with not a sound to be heard from the outside world, it feels like time has stopped. Like the audience is inhabiting a reality yet to be defined by the action onstage.

As the lights come up, A (Lucy Griffiths) and B (Matthew Spencer) are deep in discussion. It transpires that B is the long-suffering psychiatrist of A, and we are privy to a seemingly routine exchange about A's day in the library. But, as we'd hoped, all is not what it seems.

A's library prides itself on possessing every book that has ever been written. In fact, as A leans in to divulge, it plans to obtain copies of every book that could ever be written…

If that wasn’t bizarre enough, A has discovered a book in a secret room in the library’s basement. A book that tells the story of her life. She has not read past the present date (whatever that may be), but there are few pages remaining. It doesn’t look good…

That’s when B, assuming the book to be fictitious, suggests a strange, Faustian bargain: why doesn’t A try inserting her own pages into the book to see how it will effect the outcome?

From the very get-go our notion of reality is challenged. Are we to believe A as a reliable narrator, given her questionable mental health? Or are we to err on the side of caution—that of her cynical listener—attempting to pluck shards of fact from her apparent fantasy?

This is just the kind of question Macleod’s play throws at us time and again throughout its snappy 50-minute running time.

Linked by abstract movements, the mystery unfolds through a series of meetings between psychiatrist and patient, which play out like surreal vignettes; snatched moments in time and space, never quite pinned down to anything concrete—that the two actors perform barefoot, regardless of their more formal attire elsewhere, adding to the dreamlike quality of the performance.

Inspired by the likes of Luis Borges, what ensues is a fantastical psychological journey, through which Macleod explores everything from Jung and his theory of the Anima, to faith, fate and free will, all the while drawing us further towards a tense and claustrophobic finale.

“My job is not to make you feel good it’s to explain why you feel bad,” is one of many cutting lines to emerge from the subtly translated script (Macleod’s original is in his Scots Gallic), packed full of sarcasm and wit, which the two competent actors manipulate with ease.

The pair work well to compliment each other’s performances – Griffiths captivating with her spritely energy and coy sexuality, while Spencer is the consistent force, spewing with pessimism and grounded in rigidity.

While we’re never quite sure what the reality of the outside world is, we can feel it closing in towards the end, and the captivating production—from start to finish—forms an enjoyable part of our reality long after we’ve filed back down to the bar (thoroughly grateful there’s still a bar there at all).

Atman plays at the Finborough Theatre on Sundays and Mondays until 21st November 2011

Reviewer: Kat Halstead