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Beside the Sea

Veronique Olmi/Adrianna Hunter
Southbank Centre

Beside the Sea is a beautifully fragile, nuanced and vivid portrait of a mother who commits infanticide. Adapted for the stage from the novella with the same name by French dramatist Veronique Olmi, it's a tightly-woven and crafted monologue that attempts to understand the darker side of maternal love, casting its own form in a sea of pitch-perfect details and shape-shifting nuances that bring you close to the protagonist. It's a tangible world through which Olmi attempts to recontextualize the murder her protagonist commits from regular social discourses or moral didactisim having been inspired by a real-life event.

Translated by Adrianna Hunter, performed by the engaging Lisa Dwan and directed by Irina Brown, Beside the Sea certainly translates the energetic, charged and dark undertones of the writing without resorting to pastiche, relying on the novella's theatricality to bring the monologue to life. There's an element of tragedy in Olmi's writing that is inherently lyrical and narrative; the bareness of the stage and Dwan's own embodiment of both anxiety and a love she cannot fully grasp, paired with a dangerous naivety allow for the flesh of the text to really come out, filling the stage with its dominant colors and atmospheres: the brown layers of the matchbox hotel in which she's staying with her two boys; the overwhelming dangerous darkness of the bus they ride there; the weight of her thin metal coins, and the flashing rides of the fair. There's a constant power struggle within the figure of the mother which creates a solid dialogue with her audience; she's fragile and powerful, confused and decisive, a woman of many binaries.

With a narrative so visual, structured in such a literary form—the story is reliant on the lack of detail the mother provides on her own background, the nature of her illness or the motivation for her decision—the play's direction somewhat displaces the climax, allowing for too much anticipation in the framework of a story constructed around the power of details; this is unaided by the bareness of the set: a floor of white rocks and pebbles and a wooden chair. This places the story in a timelessness which is antagonistic to its own specificity; part of its power lies in its contemporaneity, in its lyrical confrontational nature. The colored bleakness and hostility of the world external to the mother really permeates into the audience and shapes our own experience of her event, but this feels misplaced in her exaggerated physicality and an overemphasis on her emotional restlessness.

Beside the Sea is a potent, lyrical and nuanced narrative that presents a violent act with an inquisitive eye; what is lacking in this production is a confident relationship to the emotional and physical language of the mother's character, who fluctuates too intuitively between emotional ranges too fixed through the direction; this displaces the dynamism and circularity of the writing, and ultimately places too much emphasis on the inherent theatricality of the text.

Reviewer: Diana Damian