FringeReview UK 2018
Director Jamie Armitage joins fight and intimacy director Enric Ortuno; the Tristan Bates space is neatly sprawled with Fin Redshaw’s bedroom set and costumes, struck with Ben Jacobs’ neat lighting chiming a gamut of encounters. Andy Joseph’s sound furnishes neat fermatas on events, as well as pop blasts. Till April 14th .
The title’s literally the love that dare not speak its name. Love Me Now probes the messy blur between casual dating and love, and the rip between consensual sex and assault, even rape. It would take a seasoned practitioner to bring this off, so Michelle Barnette’s debut play might seem ambitious as first plays often are, but lacking the complete assurance as yet to explore such themes with total authority.
Forget that. What we have is a seasoned theatre practitioner who after an acting degree and two early modern MAs, the latter in Shakespeare theatre practice attached to the Globe, set up as producer and co-producer: Milly Thomas’ Dust for example and adapting classics. At twenty-five Barnette has her own production company and knows exactly what works.
She’s also written about employing fight and intimacy director Enric Ortulio with flinchingly good results. It helps that director Jamie Armitage and the cast of Alistair Tovey (‘A’) Helena Wilson (B ad Gianbruno Spena (‘C’) are uniformly excellent and the Tristan Bates space is neatly sprawled with Fin Redshaw’s bedroom set and costumes, struck with Ben Jacobs’ neat lighting chiming a gamut of encounters. Above lies a pink neon squiggle brightening or dulling as of need, not unlike the bluish violet one in The Hard Problem at the National in 2015. This time it suggests everything from neurotransmission, Soho sex, violence and its own squiggly elegy. Andy Joseph’s sound furnishes neat fermatas on events, as well as pop blasts.
Wilson – last seen at the Donmar in The Lady From the Sea as the care-worn Bolette, is here an eloquent woman asking two questions of Toovey’s blokey but articulate A (he sparkled in An Octoroon at the Orange Tree recently).
Like Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys, Love Me Now starts with jokes, then darkens. We start with rompy humour: B wrong-footing herself on her gymnastic sexual ability, putting these down to yoga. It transpires she only thinks yoga, doesn’t attend the gym, even her mats are a distraction. Having set B up as mildly delusional in one way Barnette rightly allows B a pretty strong moral ascendancy afterwards; it’s easy to see why.
A’s answer to B’s ‘What now?’ is ‘Whatever you want it to be’ a somewhat passive-aggressive invite to project anything, as if A was a male escort. B’s more intimate ‘And will you give me head back?’ garners no such compliance though. A won’t, or is reluctant to, despite B’s willingness to give him as much as he wants. It’s meant to be casual, but B’s increasingly attached and A’s lightly then more heavily cruel throwing-back of his five other women sparks a litany of anxiety about STDs and much else. Condoms aren’t enough, B tells him, and nor is sex. Words like cunnilingus are scrupulously avoided in this barrage of quick-fire dialogue adhering to that contemporary anxiety summarised wittily by Elinor Cook: that if she’s written more than two lines in any dialogue, it’s too much.
Here though Barnette shows a rue ear for purity of diction, paradoxical as that seems. The closest she gets to non-vernacular is ‘clit’ which has been absorbed in its diminutive, when B taunts A that he wouldn’t even know how to find it. Barnette’s attention to the rhythms of speech as well as the compression of words and demotic quick-fire is a sure sign of someone who understands the poetry of it too. It’s not the way Mamet writes for example. Barnette possesses her own rhythms; on this evidence she’s found her voice vigorously and early.
No praise can be too much for Wilson and Toovey’s exploration and risk-taking, clearly with an enormous emphasis on the post Me Too world, but with danger and assault not shirked. Barnette loads the dice admittedly, exonerating B rightly from any kind of judgement as her brief later lover C tries not to express it. He’s a conventional solicitor with traditional rules who woos her fervently and then is frightened off as she is by conventional expectations and dumps her just as she seeks to dump him. He soon finds a ‘nice’ girl. It’s a slightly ungrateful role for Spena but he’s wholly convincing.
The interaction between A and B is so lean and powerful C’s introduction seems intrusive structurally and tonally. C’s been placed to amplify – and diversify – an argument, but in his brief compass C’s not a felt part of the play. It would need to be a longer work to orchestrate an adequate trio; Barnette would probably decide against a potential dilution.
It’s A who taunts B with wanting sex yet refusing to take it lightly. His own conflicted desire for intimacy, which B has asked for from both men is complicated by a blokeish and perhaps overly-weighed savagery. But it’s too convincing not to be true even of men now in their mid-twenties supposedly liberal and educated. As for the intimacy she craves, B even teases C with ‘the next man I sleep with will be the father of my children’ but parts of her means it, as she does to reclaim her virginity – simply a closing up of wounds and rediscovery of herself as a sexually inactive being.
The time frame allows this too. B has discovered the door’s locked and a can’t get away to Fiona, his next date, and is forced to stay and confront issues. It’s not linear. We’re flashed back through earlier stages of the relationship. There’s a furious and frightening crisis. To reveal why would be a spoiler. The aftermath is twofold., C’s arrival and departure is attended in a dram sequence of flashbacks as both men address B at the same time, sometimes with fragmented key moments over and over. There’s also like The French Lieutenant’s Woman almost two endings, two conclusions. One, though, is where it seems to be headed.
I’m not entirely sure the latter structuring’s necessary in the several flashbacks: the narrative’s strong enough in all its non-linearity, and perhaps too much repetition is the only place where it might seem clunky. The rest is masterly.
Despite everything B loves A and you can se fundamentally why; it’s not all abuse and low self-image. Both are smart, sexy, sassy and if a knows less of what b wants they express everything in the same sassy language. There is despite everything a terrific rapport Wilson and Toovey bring out. But Toovey’s aggressive denials, his misogyny and inability till the end to express his feelings are both shocking and harrowing ultimately for both of them. A’s invective and abuse should have seen him depart eons back. B’s bitter knowingness though refuses easy solutions.
Both A and B confess their real sexual scoring, and you find that indeed a year has flown since the early encounters. A and B despite A’s appalling even ancient inability to give head are clearly incredibly sexually attracted and it’s brought out time and again. Barnette understands that to deliver a full shock the sexiness and their sexuality must be seen as deeply consensual, as well as conflicted. But there’s lines. Not just one, that A transgresses with.
A few structural caveats can’t diminish the power of this debut. There’s an almost tragic power to one of the two endings, amidst glimpses of redemption which is after all about self-knowledge. How difficult it seems to admit love, particularly for men in the toxicity of casual sex where people become apps and black voids to delete. Unmissable. Barnette’s next play will be worth waiting for.