The Mercy Seat

Neil LaBute
York Theatre Royal
York Theatre Royal Studio

Andrew Macklin and Lesley Harcourt in The Mercy Seat
Andrew Macklin and Lesley Harcourt in The Mercy Seat

York Theatre Royal’s TakeOver festival continues with arguably its centrepiece production, an opportunity for the festival’s Artistic Director Ruby Clarke to showcase her skills by directing two professional actors in a play of her choosing.

Her choice is a powerful two-hander set on September 12 2001, with two lovers Ben (Andrew Macklin) and Abby (Lesley Harcourt) holed up in the latter’s New York apartment. Written in 2002, the play is astute about the hypocrisy of national outpourings of emotion in the wake of a world-changing catastrophe, and particularly about what LaBute sees as the selfish indolence inherent in many people.

The focus of the drama though is interpersonal, as we learn that the relationship is an adulterous one. Ben’s wife is waiting, calling, hoping for news from him that he was not caught in the attack on the World Trade Center. He had been due to attend his company offices there, and would have been killed but for his urge to visit his lover Abby. He now sees this fluke as offering a clean, easy exit from the marriage, reinventing himself and running away with Abby—disappearing in the still-settling dust of the Twin Towers.

Against this backdrop, and for an hour and a half, we watch this pair pick apart their relationship. It is passionate and volatile in many ways and for various reasons. Though at first the style takes a moment to gel and for one to get one’s ear in, LaBute’s writing soon settles and deftly shifts the focus at precisely the right moments, shuffling the story along with the easy-seeming skill he’s inherited from the likes of Mamet.

Writing dialogue this good is not, however, a simple matter, and nor is keeping focus as actor or director for a two-hander of this length. Harcourt and Macklin, under Clarke’s sensitive, insightful direction, are superb.

Harcourt is steely yet breaks cover into convincing emotion—she has the marginally more likeable character but paints an unsentimental and uncompromising portrait. She is controlled and captivating, ideal casting for such a demanding role.

Macklin’s Ben is perhaps (even) less endearing, but he makes no excuses for the character, and Macklin too varies his rhythms and angles of attack (and defence) with skill. His faster moments tend slightly towards gabbling in a rush to follow the logic of the line, but this aside it is an admirable performance.

As with the writing, there are occasional moments at first where it feels as though the staging is being altered for the mere sake of variety, rather than out of a genuine reason for this or that character to move at this precise moment. But again, once into its stride it is captivating, varied, and certainly holds its own with other recent Studio two-handers such as Oleanna.

Morgan Large’s design effortlessly conjures the minimalist New York loft apartment in which the action takes place, while offering an unavoidable reminder of the larger story going on beyond those four walls. Mike Redley’s lighting is unshowy and realist, as befits the production.

The choice of LaBute will not be to everyone’s taste, and accusations of dwelling in misanthropy have repeatedly been levelled at the director/writer of In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and The Shape of Things. This is not always an easy play to watch, as it turns its microscope on some deeply reprehensible urges and indeed behaviour. The humour is often of the blackest kind. Like other recent intense two-handers Blackbird and the aforementioned Oleanna, it will only appeal to those of a certain, slightly cynical disposition. Do not expect to empathise with these characters; or rather, do not expect the empathy you experience for them to be a welcome feeling.

Having issued this warning, I have no qualms in wholeheartedly recommending this superb production of a fascinating, searingly truthful and, yes, at times bleakly funny play, which dissects with steely precision the lies we tell our loved ones, not only at moments of stress but in everyday life.

Reviewer: Mark Smith