Bear in the Air
Tristan Bates Theatre
Isolation is a powerful force. It denies humans, who are essentially social beings, not just community, companionship and communion but also personal agency. More than the lonely or the alienated, the isolated individual is powerless to act to change their condition, severed as they are from an external world which they recognise and to which they belong, forced to retreat ever more into their inner life. An inner life that, under increasing strain, may fragment.
From Daniel Defoe in Robinson Crusoe to Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Yellow Wallpaper, from Jane Eyre in her aunt’s Red Room to Jack and Ma in their eleven by eleven-foot cell in Emma Donoghue’s Room, literature has repeated explored the consequences of isolation and incarceration on the self and the soul.
Heather Simpkin’s new play, Locked Up—the playwright’s London professional debut which is currently showing at the Tristan Bates Theatre—explores similar territory, taking us into the confined, claustrophobic space where Declan (Samuel Ranger) and Topher (Conor Cook) find themselves – imprisoned by whom, where, for what reason or purpose, or for how long, they do not know.
The opening moments of the play certainly force the audience to reflect on their own fears and resources. At first, Declan is alone. He paces the cell—a bare, grimy white-tiled ‘pit’, draped with black curtains (design by Justin Williams and Jonny Rust)—taking first small steps, then strides, then running as if to will himself to freedom through the restraining walls. Then, he exercises, a few push-ups which, with painful irony, expose the human capacity for self-deception, as his counting skips in pairs, “2, 4, 6”. He tries a song—to lift his spirit or simply to fill the blank hours, who knows?—a nightmarish parody of “Ten Green Bottles” which loops hypnotically back to the start when the last beer bottle has crashed to the ground.
Lighting Designer Euan J Davies both disorientates us and suggests the passing of time, intermittently plunging the auditorium in blackness and shining a strip of interrogatory orange lights into the audience. When we flick back to the cell, it’s occupied by Conor, practising his golf swing or just sitting hunched in a corner clutching the single scruffy sheet that is his only ‘comfort’.
Just when both prisoners might submit to the paranoia that no one else in the world knows they are there, or that they even exist, they find each other. The small cubicle must now be shared by two men who are naturally suspicious of each other and uneasy. Over the next fifty minutes, they move through a series of emotions from fear to feverishness, confusion to conflict, righteousness to rage. They shout at their hidden gaolers, and at each other; they talk of the White Room to which they are taken, and which might divulge some certainty about their whereabouts and future.
Ranger’s Declan is guarded; Cook’s Topher is more prone to seek solace in humour, to try to break down barriers. He confesses that he isn’t in fact communications officer working in pharmaceuticals but has worked for the government.
They ruminate on an escape plan. When the ending comes, it’s sudden, and unexpected (no spoiler here); in fact, it feels rather too hasty, as if Simpkin might have delved a bit deeper into the issues and the characters’ minds. But, her play is engaging—sometimes frighteningly, even viscerally, so. I kept thinking about Beirut hostages in the 1980s and the shadows of Beckett, Kafka and Orwell were never far away. Even the set was eerily reminiscent of Winston Smith’s prison cell in Michael Radford’s film of 1984.
The psychologist William James remarked that there to be in society but totally unnoticed was the worst punishment that humans could suffer: “we are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.” Locked Up skilfully reminds us that incarceration, isolation and irrelevance are inescapable and omnipresent human fears.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour