Love, Question Mark

Robert Gillespie
New Diorama Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

Michael seems like a nice, respectable enough middle-aged man. Buttoned up neatly in cardigan and tie, he comes across like an easy-going headteacher or a benign maths lecturer. And he is lecturing us, in a way - on a particular collection of formulae: those which equal love, or our ideas of love. He has become, as he airily puts it, a student of this subject. But as well as taking us through a huge range of example's of society's various attitudes to this most mercurial subject, he's also re-playing for us his own personal adventure or, perhaps you might say, experiment in the field.

After the death of his wife, Michael grieved, then started to get on with his life, and started to wonder what it was he'd had. How had the relationship changed his life, his personality? Was it love he'd known, and if it was, what was that? So, eventually he buys a prostitute from a developing country, to come and live with him and give him sex on demand. Excuse me? you might well say. But this is not a drama about sex trafficking; Gillespie is not nearly as interested in the socio-political implications of the situation as he is in the comic human drama that plays out between the two of them once she is installed. And I think this is valid; though there are echoes of the suspect Pretty Woman story in which a prostitute adapts absurdly easily, and with no hint of complicated emotions, to being set up in luxury by a rich benefactor who will eventually become her love interest. Maria is a fiery Argentinian woman of the night (in the way of these things, how could she not be fiery?) - and as Michael lectures us, he draws her in to sharing her own earthy philosophy with us too.

The main premise of the show is that we have been duped - into believing in monogamy and in the possibility of love being a sort of heaven on earth. Michael takes us through representations of love throughout history, pouring scorn on the language of high-flown Victorian romance, exploring what other cultures have considered an alternative "normal". There are some choice pieces quoted, such as Darwin's manic scribbled notes on the pros and cons of marriage - loss of freedom, loss of time to work, versus "a nice soft wife on a sofa with good fire, & books & music perhaps".

Maria meanwhile candidly recounts stories of her clients, including some shocking things done to her and her fellow prostitutes. The point is not to persuade us to hate men, but, she argues, to recognise that it is not only a particular breed of man that makes use of her profession. Her clients were all different, she insists; there is no generalising to be done: she simply "had something that men wanted". If simply any and all men suffer that temptation, what does that mean for our belief in monogamous love?

The show just avoids actually leaping to that conclusion, by keeping the debate fresh and lively, and simply presenting possibilities, in frank and funny fashion. At the same time as the lecture continues, we watch Michael and Maria's relationship develop: the safer she starts to feel, the naughtier she becomes, until they are engaged in a cycle of sadomasochistic game-playing. But he still won't let her leave the house, and she points out how much it resembles conventional relationships: she desires freedom from his suffocating mistrust, he worries that that very desire will lead her to walk out and never come back. Michael has developed a sort of zoological view of humans, equating them with all the animals who mate freely with whoever happens to be about - there being, he points out, only three species in the world who stick to one partner for life. But - in a highly dysfunctional way - they are starting to like each other, and he can't necessarily maintain his cynicism forever.

The episodic nature of the show works well: it's fast-paced and very funny, with any number of unusual developments (mostly to do with their sexual games) suddenly thrown our way. The downside is that the attempt to keep the philosophical side of the show moving leads to some clumsy devices, such as a piece of information literally floating down from the ceiling to inform Michael's argument, like an email from God, a celestial telegram - it feels highly incongruous. Each development in the story is a mere device to keep the argument moving on.

Of course the piece is highly stylised, so it's inevitable that moments often feel contrived; the problem is that once we have started to believe in Maria as a character and to care about her story, we start to pine for a bit more realism. At the end, when a sort of happy ending restores Maria with her loved ones and forces a sort of conventionality on Michael, it's used simply as a means for his arguments to be defeated, and to allow a comedy sequence where he mock-attempts to kill himself with kitchen utensils in protest.

The metatheatrical lecture element of the show does lead to many interesting moments; one in particular, where you get the impression that the two of them are on the road together with this their show about love. It's not quite explored enough though: are they merely actors. Is this their own story they're telling? If it is, where is their relationship at now? But overall it's a sharp and witty show, deftly directed by Gillespie who keeps the pace up and keeps our interest admirably, and wonderfully performed by Stuart Sessions and Clare Cameron. It challenges us to be curious about our ideas of love, and to look for our own truth.

Until 1st May

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury