Brighton Festival 2015
Centered on the fictional, liberal Apple family of upstate New York, these interconnecting dramas explore politics, change and family dynamics in the 21st century with remarkable immediacy. First commissioned by The Public Theater, each play premiered on the night on which it was set. Featuring the original ensemble cast that has come to embody Nelson’s fascinating family,
The Apple Family plays is a quartet of quiet, naturalistic dramas that visit the family on four days of national import, the very day each play held its respective premiere in New York. This is a gimmick that would have felt topical and pleasing in the moment, but holds little weight several years after the event whilst they are being shown one after the other in a Brighton theatre. The plays I saw, Sorry and Regular Singing were set on the day of Obama’s second term election, and the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination respectively. They are not therefore especially dramatic events in themselves, but they allowed some political talk to edge into the production that could otherwise have felt shoehorned.
The plays are subtle, nostalgic and calm. Far from the revelatory histrionics of other American family dramas such as August Osage County, very little happens. Instead the audience are merely flies on the wall to the ebb and flow of familial conversations, circular and laced with the unsaid inferences of long ago inflicted wounds. Unless you sat through the ‘marathon’ of plays on the bank holiday Monday, you invariably came to the Apple family halfway through, and it was therefore up to you as the audience member to spend the first ten minutes working out the relationships between the characters, and gauging the dynamics of the assembled cast.
The acting was largely excellent, and the family lynchpin, Barbara, in whose home the action takes place was marvellously portrayed by Maryann Plunkett; a complicated ball of anxieties, responsibility and the faintest whiff of martyrdom. It was these fine performances that drew you into the family and made you care about them. There wasn’t quite enough meat in the text to really engage me in the performance, but I can see that for the people who had spent a incredible seven hours with the family on Monday, they must have felt like old friends, and the standing ovation they received was in lieu of audience members running onstage to hug the cast.
I am well aware that the ‘point’ of these plays is that they depict an ordinary, middle class, well-educated, politically aware family just existing. A family navigating the every day trials of putting a difficult but much loved relative in to a home, or comforting a brother whose wife has left him. And of course showing the struggles of every day life and family dynamics is the bread and butter of hundreds of marvellous plays, it’s just many times during these performances I found myself asking ‘why’? As I looked around at the largely white middle class audience watching similarly white and middle class people discuss the merits of Barak Obama, I was not sure quite what we were gaining. What was the audience taking away from the experience other than the warm glow of recognition and familiarity, and seeing your own character and those of your loved ones reflected by the fine actors in front of you. Perhaps this is enough, and I have grown too fond of ‘high drama’, but I don’t think that’s it. I suppose I like going to the theatre and being challenged, and the Apple Family Plays didn’t even come close.
I will however give these plays a Recommended rating, because the acting is so very good, and the direction is subtle and nuanced. They use the space well, and the simple and naturalistic set helped to convey the bustle and movement of a comfortable and familiar house filled with visiting relatives. I am also aware that I am in a minority in my views, both compared to the audience’s reaction and the response of other critics, so I strongly urge you to see for yourself what you think of the Apple family and make up your own mind.