North East Theatre Consortium production
Customs House, South Shields, and touring
This is the second play in a few weeks in the North East to deal with mental illness and attempts to treat it: the first was Unlimited's The Moon The Moon on tour at Northern Stage. Perhaps appropriately, both defy classification.
The publicity material suggests a kind of gothic horror: "Three vulnerable women; a nurse, her patient and an elderly housekeeper, trapped together in an isolated cottage are menaced by a ghostly intruder and a swarm of bees."
That certainly is the first impression: a housekeeper, Eusapia, and her employer, the agoraphobic Angel, sit telling stories in the dilapidated house which is filled with strange noises (beautifully created on stage by John Alder using an amplified cello), when thunderous knocking on the door is heard. It is Ruth, a psychiatric nurse, who has come to treat Angel. Although she seems not to be expected, she talks of sending references and being employed. Eusapia tries to get rid of her but Angel wants her to stay. A struggle between Ruth and Eusapia for power over Angel ensues.
So far, so gothic. But playwright Margaret Wilkinson subverts the genre by, at times, introducing elements of comedy which had the audience laughing out loud, whilst at others there are events which bring a genuine frisson of terror. And sometimes we get both together: in an early scene, for example, we laugh as we see Eusapia appearing in gaps in the set, listening in to a conversation between Ruth and Angel. It's funny but threatening at the same time.
And there is an ambivalence in all of the characters. Take Eusapia, for example, who is presumably named for Eusapia Palladino, the famous (or infamous) nineteenth century medium (or fraud). She holds a séance to contact Angel's father, complete with table-knocking, ectoplasm and spirit voices and we can see so very clearly that she is manufacturing them - until it all suddenly becomes frighteningly real.
And is Ruth really the dedicated nurse she professes to be? And did Angel kill her father? Is her agoraphobia due to real or imagined guilt?
It is, in fact, a multi-layered piece. We are surely meant to remember Miss Haversham, especially when Angel takes off her dressing gown to reveal, not a white wedding dress but a pink ball gown. And Ruth, of course, was the Biblical faithful friend - "Where you go, there I shall go also; your people will be my people, your God, my God." And of course "ruth" means compassion, pity. And is the name Angel accurate or ironic? And how many gothic tales have sinister housekepers?
Essentially we are looking at the stories of three people and we see each through the others' eyes, with the viewpoint switching continually so we have a kind of Picasso-esque picture, like the profile with both eyes on the same side of the head. The narrative is linear but the perspective shifts continually.
Director Wils Wilson keeps the piece moving at a good pace, carrying the audience along through the twists and turns. Joanna Holden's Eusapia is beautifully sinister, projecting what is surely a spurious concern for her employer. Or is it? That ambivalence at work again! Karen Traynor's Scottish Ruth is all confidence and positivity at the start but the cracks are there: we need the hindsight of the second act to recognise them, though. Perhaps we should be made to think that the "lady doth protest too much". As Angel, Rachel Donovan was too passive for my taste, too pale for one who might be capable of killing her father. That must surely have been a directorial decision.
Imogen Cloet's set, well lit by Colin Grenfall, is very impressive, exuding atmosphere.
A fascinating piece, which left many members of the audience deep in discussion as they left. They'd clearly enjoyed it and they were thinking. What more can one ask of a piece of theatre?
Touring to Leeds, Lancaster, Newcastle, Hexham and Darlington.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan