Edinburgh Fringe 2019
“Benedict’s dad loved wine. He loved collecting it, drinking it and sharing it with friends and family was an act of love. Benedict was a teenage alcoholic. He’s been sober now for 25 years. On the day of his father’s funeral, Benedict receives an unsettling final bequest: a bottle of exceptionally fine red wine. Will he drink one final toast to his father? Originally commissioned for BBC Radio 4, Marcus Brigstocke writes and directs this bittersweet drama of family and addiction, based on his own recovery.”
Many recovering addicts and alcoholics will tell you it was when they were feeling fine, that they relapsed. Often catastrophic relapses happen when the individual’s life is smooth again. When everything has settled, they aren’t at their rock bottom any more, that might have been many many years ago. They have rebuilt their lives, and their addiction is just a bad dream. Like a depressive feeling better on antidepressants who says they don’t really need their meds any more, those in recovery can easily forget how delicately their sobriety hangs, how thin that thread is between health and addiction. Doubts start to creep in;
“Surely just one glass isn’t going to hurt. They can all do it, so can I…it’s been over 20 years now”.
Marcus Brigstocke has written a tender and personal play. A son (Sam Alexander) on the day of his Dad’s (Bruce Alexander) funeral sits in his wine cellar, a place of memories and nostalgia that represents his Dad in so many ways. And he reads a letter from his Dad, that tells him about this special bottle of wine he had been saving for him, saving for a Father-Son moment. He asks him to drink it today in his memory. From here begins the thoughtful unpicking of this one simple request, conjuring up the apparition of his dead father and they begin to talk. We feel much warmth and connection between them.
As I watched this conversation between father and son, and all the good reasons to open the wine, I thought to myself perhaps he would be ok too to now drink. He seems like such a civilised and calm person. He has a wife and kids and a responsible job. He has been sober for many many years and his life is in order. Couldn’t he be like his Dad and just enjoy wine for the taste? But then he tells the cautionary tales he has heard in those meeting rooms; of people who have relapsed and lives have fallen apart soon after, some have died too. We are reminded that alcoholism is a life-threatening disease.
This show is clever in that it didn’t choose to focus on the emotional intensity of addiction and the destruction it leaves behind. That would be easy to write about and makes good fodder for drama hungry critics. The Red is more subtle than that. It keeps us in a place of gentle meandering thinking. It raised all the questions that addicts ask themselves every day. And that’s what is at the centre of The Red. Throughout the whole piece we are waiting and watching to see if he will do it; if he will drink that one, delicious, expensive, Ruby coloured glass of Red.
The set design was realistic, and the lighting made it feel all the more vivid. The expensive wine stacked neatly all around them in this genteel cellar. It was effective in creating the sophisticated backdrop for the rational argument that he could be civilised and have ‘just one’. The room is orderly – not the image of an addicts den. And I think this was the point he was trying to make here. That wealth and good education and class doesn’t make someone immune from addiction. And if anything, as the father himself reflects, could it make it worse? Is it possible that a self declared appreciation of the finer things in life, is just alcoholism too? Just dressed up artfully in a middle class English country package. Sometimes friends and family can be in denial about addiction because it doesn’t look like the image of addiction that they have in their head. And that, for a recovering addict can be the real challenge.
This show is a dialogue that unfolds gracefully between father and son that is about their relationship, but also becomes a representation of the inner dialogue that addiction plays out every day, in every moment for some people newly in recovery. The voice of addiction can sound reasonable and loving and offer the illusion of free will. In a way, in this piece of work, his father becomes addiction in an illusion.
There are many reasons to drink; “Just one wont hurt you”, “It’s my birthday”, “I have had a hard day, surely I am fine now?”. And each of these reasons in themselves make sense. But as he recounts quickly, he knows what he is like when the Tiger is awoken, and it will be even more hungry as it’s been sleeping for some time. As alcoholics in recovery often say with warning, “One drink not enough, two drinks too many”.
There are some who will completely get this play, some that won’t. There may be some who find it too uncomfortable and dismiss it; it may too close to the truth for them.
Even if the subject of alcoholism isn’t of real interest, this play is still worth seeing for the well-crafted dialogue between father and son that is tender, thought provoking and gracefully acted. A masterclass in skilful character based performance and intelligent writing.