Play With Fire
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
Johnna Adams’s Sans Merci is a play about grief, about two very different women attempting to cope with the loss of the person each loved most in the world; the title being lifted from Keats’s poem (“La Belle Dame Sans Merci”) which itself draws on an earlier French piece employing—as the scholarly characters tell us—a sense of the word ‘merci’ closer to the English word ‘mercy’. Knowing this is crucial to understanding the story.
Kelly and Elizabeth both loved Tracy, who died brutally in terrible circumstances (raped and then shot in the head by FARC rebels) three years ago. This is the first time these two women have met. The opportunity for mutual healing this encounter might offer is effectively blocked by the bigotry of Elizabeth (Tracy’s conservative, staunchly Republican mother) who is appalled by the fact of her daughter’s lesbian relationship with Kelly.
More than this, Elizabeth holds Kelly responsible for Tracy’s death, arguing, with undeniable plausibility, that without Kelly’s influence, her daughter would never have been on that clifftop in Colombia to meet her awful fate. Kelly, (herself raped, wounded and left for dead on that dreadful day) spends her own days, racked with guilt and heartbreak, contemplating suicide.
The light to set against all this darkness comes through flashbacks to the early days of Kelly’s burgeoning relationship with Tracy. The forceful, earnest Kelly (Hannah Ellis Ryan) and the bright, nervy Tracy (Chloe Proctor) make an entirely convincing couple. Kelly, already a committed political activist, initially rescues Tracy from a traumatic case of stage fright when delivering a seminar paper. Soon after, it is the mercurial Tracy who rescues Kelly from her loneliness, assuring her she will never break her heart (a poignant assertion given what we already know will be her fate).
Tracy, by turns bubbling over with poetic enthusiasms or seized by breath-strangling panics, is made lovable by Proctor’s vibrant, sometimes literally breathless performance. The climax of the play turns on an apocalyptic transformation in Tracy’s nature which is delivered with focus, energy and truth.
Judy Holt has the most complex (and perhaps least well-written) character in Elizabeth, whose pent-up grief approaches volcanic proportions. Here perhaps is a need for a steadying hand from director Daniel Bradford. There is such fury and resentment locked inside this anguished mother, Holt needs more time to simmer, seethe and snipe. At present, she bursts asunder too early in the piece, leaving her with no space left to top what she has already spewed out.
Some of the issue lies, I feel, with the playwright. It is the writer’s duty to love even those characters she does not like. There are times here when Adams is struggling to love Elizabeth.
It is, of course, a critics’ cliché to speak of a production being worth seeing for the strength of a single performance. Cliché or no, this has to be said of Ellis Ryan’s Kelly. Her delivery, even on opening night, is controlled, passionate, loving, needy, conflicted and caring. As the bridging character (between present and flashback) Kelly leaps from grief and exasperation in her exchanges with the erudite, acerbic Elizabeth, straight into the joy of new love (in her flashback scenes with Tracy).
Ellis Ryan draws the audience with her through these transitions, displaying a level of skill, conviction and judgement that should see her performing on a bigger stage (with all due respect to the admirable Hope Mill Theatre). This is not a showy performance but, in its measured way, it approaches the exquisite.
Venue constraints here offer challenges to design, with the audience obliged to crane first left then right to follow the flashback scenes. Irene Jade’s set works hard to accommodate this. My own feeling is that fringe productions (technical limitations allowing) would do well to make more of lighting and sound, less of props and sets.
The play itself is flawed, though liberally sprinkled with wit and moments of genuine dramatic power. Two fulcrum moments don't quite work. The first may be a question for the production to address. The laying out of the dead woman’s clothes (a high stakes gamble, perhaps, by Kelly) may work only if Elizabeth’s earlier laments about being denied the chance to see her daughter’s body are given more chance to breathe and take root in the audience’s heart.
The climactic moment, whilst searingly played by Proctor, nevertheless relies on a contrivance. Sometimes, writers are seduced by the power of a dramatic moment, tableau or image. Adams seems to me to have yielded to the temptation to subvert the psychological truths of the characters she has created in pursuit of a coup de théâtre. The conceit at the heart of the play—just who is the woman ‘without mercy’?—is a clever one, yet the denouement feels crowbarred in rather than earned.
That, at least, was my feeling. There were tears nearby, so perhaps I'm just a jaded, heartless critic.
Sans Merci has a three-week run at Hope Mill. There is plenty to love here (most especially, Ellis Ryan’s performance). Don't miss it.
Reviewer: Martin Thomasson