Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
5 stars *****
4 stars *****
This Is Water
4 stars ****
My Friend Duplicity
4 stars ****
All Is Vanity
3 stars ***
IT FEATURES FIVE NEW HALF-HOUR BREAKFAST PLAYS by leading British and Irish writers, fabulous actors, and a ground-breaking experiment that involves the intensive filming of the rehearsed readings, with interviews and background material, before this evening’s live transmission of all five plays to cinemas across the UK.
The Traverse’s Impossible Things Before Breakfast, in other words, is the festival project that has everything, including a bacon roll and a cup of coffee for each audience member before each morning show even starts. The plays, though, are a strangely introverted bunch. Given the whole world to range over, at least three of the five focus tightly on the affluent middle classes of Britain and Ireland, their angst, their relationships, and their attempts to come to terms with their own mortality; yet what they lack in thematic breadth, they tend to make up in metaphysical depth.
By far the strongest play is Simon Stephens’s haunting monologue T5, performed by Meg Fraser with a truly heart-stopping brilliance. The speaker is an ordinary wife and mother, living in London, whose life becomes derailed after she witnesses the murder of a young boy by a gang of thugs on waste ground near her home. Her marriage is rocky, her world seems meaningless; and one afternoon she simply leaves her life, and heads for Terminal 5 at Heathrow. After a while, the story becomes surreal; but never in a way that breaches its fundamental integrity, as a vision of a woman whose mind can simply no longer bear the denial and the lies – political, personal, moral – on which her apparently “normal” life is based.
Marina Carr’s Quartet is that rarest of things, a dramatic hymn to love, in all its complexity. The central character is a middle-aged Irish diplomat, whose well-heeled and well-travelled life allows him to maintain a wife in Washington, an ageing mistress in Ireland, and young lover in New York, all of whom know about, and even like, one another.
The situation is slightly improbable, but it unleashes a torrent of superb lyrical writing about the real nature of sexual love, and its stubborn refusal to conform to the rules we try to lay down for it, even in the face of old age and death. Vicky Featherstone’s beautifully-paced production features four rich, and profoundly grown-up performances from Andy Gray as the diplomat, with Irene Macdougall, Anne Kidd and Cora Bissett as the women. And as a dramatic experience, it’s both more optimistic and, in a sense, more original than the other quartet in the series, David Eldridge’s All Is Vanity (Or With Apologies To Nathalie Sarraute), a profoundly depressing and slightly old-fashioned anatomy of upper-middle-class alienation and self-hatred set in a garden in Kent, where middle-aged boss Roy, and his barren and furious wife Ursula – brilliantly played by Jane Bertish – are entertaining Roy’s new sales manager and his young wife.
Between these plays, though, come two slightly more left-field offerings, in terms of form. Linda McLean’s This Is Water is simply a well-shaped series of quotations from the words of random New Yorkers whom she interviewed, as part of a recent project, about their views on uncertainty in their lives. This is the one play of the four that, in a sense, speaks with the voice of ordinary people; and what emerges is an oddly beautiful and moving piece of theatre, sharply directed by Stewart Laing, that offers terrific creative scope to a fine cast featuring Meg Fraser, James Anthony Pearson, Nalini Chetty, and Gary Lewis.
And finally, there’s Enda Walsh’s My Friend Duplicity, a 21st century Waiting For Godot set off the Kilburn Road in London, but featuring two Irish people (“Are we Irish? Yes, thank god.”) trapped in a room, arguing about the relative merits of reality and imagination. He is an ageing writer, perhaps; she is his young secretary, or amanuensis, or muse. Niall Buggy starts off with astonishing charm and charisma as the man, Fergal, although he seems to lose his way as Walsh’s complex script unfolds; Olga Wehrly is briliantly sceptical as the woman. And the whole play shimmers on a strange cusp between the real world – with all its banality and possible magic – and an imagined world where magic can be created and repeated at will; as if Ireland itself was a place caught between these two worlds, in a limbo that Sam Beckett would have recognised, and that Enda Walsh fills with his own inimitable poetry.
Until 29 August, with live cine-cast performance of all five plays this evening, 23 August, 7.00 p.m.