Brighton Fringe 2016
Directed by Brighton-based Sam Chittenden, “Blackbird charts the tense confrontation between Ray and Una, who has found him again 15 years after the abrupt ending of their relationship. As recriminations fly, we see that both are irrevocably damaged. This taut and unflinching drama builds relentlessly to its explosive conclusion.”
Blackbird is a very intense and intelligent (primarily) two-hander, first produced in 2005, from the pen of award-winning, David Harrower. It depicts the meeting between a young woman and a middle-aged man in a confrontation about a shared episode in their lives fifteen years earlier. I will say no more on that and explain why I am saying no more, later in this review.
This is a dialogue piece that runs for well over an hour and yet holds attention pretty much throughout. The writing is laden with overlapping things, arranged around a core story, which slowly reveals itself, and its many layers, during the performance.
There’s a relentless pursuit of these themes in the writing. Just as we feel shattered by one revelation, more is added, right until the last, shocking moments. This is a play that piles it on thick and, in parts, less might be more. I felt overwhelmed by the content and, though that largely serves the sheer intensity of this theatrical experience, in parts it feels a little word-heavy. There’s a lot to pack into the ninety minutes (no internal) and, while interest didn’t flag for a moment, the script occasionally weighs down too heavily on the drama. Director Sam Chittenden skilfully addresses this through some intelligent pacing. When the play does allow for silence, and just a look to pass between the two actors, an electric drama emerges.
The style is rooted in Meisner, naturalistic and accessible. Within moments we are immersed in this world and these people are close to us and, even as their story emerges before us, shocking, terrible, even unbearable in places, the naturalism it is rooted in offers us the chilling realisation that is isn’t another world – this is our world. These people live on our street. These behaviours and assumptions are too easily ours.
Many perspectives are fused together in the writing: A feminist view of how men justify their actions, to themselves and to the world; a socio-political view of how we all have a legal right to move on and yet the realities of the human condition mean we can be gripped forever by our history. These are souls haunted by the past, trapped in unresolved history, feeling still open wounds, as that past arrives to haunt someone in the present. Can we ever move on? Should we ever move on? If conscience “makes cowards of us all”, then what are we fleeing from ultimately – others or ourselves?
This is a play with confrontation at its heart and that confrontation is multi-faceted. It’s rich writing, realised with quality direction, direct design, and some excellent acting. Sometimes the naturalistic style plays down to pure realism, even unto minimal volume and unstated movement. Yet, at other times, it becomes a tad too melodramatic, we are back in more standard theatre, and there’s a bit of inconsistency in that, that needs ironing out as the run develops. There are also a few sound effects that feel a bit disconnected from the realism on stage.
The play is long but it needs to be to demonstrate its purpose: Life does not reveal immediately. Secrets beneath secrets beneath secrets hidden, not only from others, but also from ourselves, often revealed only through collusion-smashing dialogue.
Lucy Laing and Martin Hobb balance well in their interplay, for this is theatre of reaction, where the next line isn’t so much delivered but is offered up to the needs of the narrative and the emerging dynamics. That creates credible rapport. This is an impressive two hander that requires immense focus and intensity of commitment from the performers. Chittenden has brought out the best of them and allowed them to sink into each other so that the dialogue really joins up, and a synergy emerges. We were gripped. That is down to a masterly directed complex narrative and two fine actors.
You might have noticed I’ve told you little or nothing about the story. Nor would I spoil a mystery ride in a theme park but telling you its secrets. I highly recommend Blackbird for its revelatory quality. It is important that you don’t know what you are letting yourself in for. It’s going to get even better as it performs more and it represents theatre at is most engaging, disturbing, informing, and effecting. Highly recommended work.