FringeReview UK 2017
Lot Vekemans, a Dutch dramatist whose work is produced internationally, has seen this work already acclaimed in the US with the same clean-limbed translation by Rina Vergano. Director Paul Miller keeps the play’s tautness limber. Simon Daw’s set uses blue audience benches and nothing else in the sight-lines of the OT’s in-the-round. Mark Doubleday’s bleached utility lighting punctuates scenes and George Dennis’ music and sound strike the same minimal note.
The Orange Tree Theatre have been mounting recent international plays at a pace they’re justly proud of. Perhaps we should all be ashamed there’s not more of it. The Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans is produced everywhere, yet is new to me. Her 2009 Poison is enjoying its first UK run in a clean-limbed translation by Rina Vergano, which has already garnered praise in the US.
A two-hander treating of grief and a refusal to move on in nine years since the death of their son separated them, the unnamed couple ensure Poison packs its metaphors with directness, its literalness with a slippery doubt. Torn apart when the husband leaves, they both need to be here now, beyond the ostensible reason. They need to interrogate and believe each other.
Nothing gets in the way of this eighty-minute arc of re-ignition and near-impossible closure. Director Paul Miller keeps the play’s tautness limber with pregnant silences and the time it needs to breathe. Simon Daw’s set uses blue audience benches and nothing else in the sight-lines of the OT’s in-the-round. There’s delicious extras replete with gurgling: in corners a coffee machine and water dispenser are both used, along with chocolate, brie and a bottle of red. Mark Doubleday’s bleached utility lighting punctuates scenes and George Dennis’ music strikes the same minimal note.
Zubin Varla’s been summoned to a cemetery chapel by a letter informing him that the graveyard is endangered by groundwater poison and that bodies need moving. ‘I didn’t know if you’d get it in time’: Claire Price’s She seems far more knowledgeable. Still living nearby in this corner of Holland whilst he lives in France, she tends the grave, knows the attendant who’s let them in and suggests everyone’s being told individually. If you sense she might be hiding something, so is he, as a call makes clear.
If gender roles seems initially reinforced, it’s Varla’s He who not only rationalises but gets the eloquence to treat of how his own life has moved whilst hers has halted. But then he’s capable of bluntness, crassness even revealing: ‘Did you know I was writing a book?’ This elicits the first shuddering withdrawal from their first embrace, as She in Price’s sardonic utterly hollowed-out shell mother registers a re-abuse, a kind of violation.
Price’s character more rapidly than Varla ramps up extreme feelings and an incandescent grief at odds with her numbed shut-down at the start. It leaves her less corners to resort to, and Price’s excellence lies in terracing the ex-wife’s register, along with a fine sardonic take on the man’s therapeutic book. Varla’s expressiveness rises more slowly, Vekemans has layered his responses: the man has seemingly more resources, more options and Varla seizes on them.
‘We’re a man and a woman who’ve lost a child,’ the man amplifies haltingly. ‘Who first lost a child and then each other. Or maybe I should say: Who first lost a child, then themselves and then each other.’ It’s the ‘each other’ that’s revisited now, whether He’s expected it or no. Even in humorous asides when she reports her brother’s ‘I love Portugal the way other people love their dog’ and rare laughter ripples, She adds: ’How can you love a patch of soil/As if it has a heart’ and you’re a few bare yards from exactly a buried heart in a patch of soil She lovingly tends.
There’s more though, just as She reveals how much she wishes to erase a past and return to a fresh start. He scotches that, and adds later: ‘We’ve got a history together that will never disappear…. I want to pull a full stop to it.’ Cue more sardonic quips on the man’s prose vocation – he is admittedly a journalist. But this is the man who then admits at the end of the second part (of three): ’I was happy that I’d got that image back of you when you smile.’ Finally He reveals his choral singing ambitions (Varla’s voice is pitched almost as low as the bass he talks of) and it’s singing that forms the unexpected crux of this drama.
As the couple peel away the son’s death, motives for the man’s flight nine years ago, the way each desperately wanted him to return, and shudderingly, themselves, you’re left with an aching sense these twain should never have parted. They’re sensing it too, but what’s happened in nine years isn’t simply loss.
In the Orange Tree’s intimate space it’s difficult to see how this tenderly excoriating drama could intensify, though it’s a testament to the work that it elicits other ways in. Varla and Price exercise restraint as well as explosiveness in a terrible balance. That they do so in a work so clear on the failure of closure and reconciling loss is an index of how Poison in fact addresses, even helps us confront them.