FringeReview UK 2019
Chelsea Walker directs a play five years in the making. Jess Bernberg has not only to punctuate with minute blackouts, but flash Midwest thunderstorms and other suddenly-suffused bright or tenebrous moments. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite produces an envelope of alienation and at one comi-tragic moment, a karaoke support. Shelley Maxwell’s movement is something everyone takes away, the audience inches from a tiny set, most of it bed and trip-up.
Is a theatrical consensus growing round consensual boundaries? There’s casual sex and role-play with dangers of mutual attachment in Michelle Barnette’s Love Me Now, with an intimacy director last year at the Tristan Bates. There’s game-emphasis in Martin Crimp’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other currently playing at the NT Dorfman. Rose Lewenstein’s provocative title Cougar came late to her but this is a play five years in the making, absorbing recent developments and proving the finest of the lot.
Lewenstein’s already acclaimed yet this is possibly her highest-profile production yet. It’s in conjunction with English Touring Theatre too so its touring exposure is assured and certainly welcome.
Director Chelsea Walker took up the now 75-minute play and its 81 scenes set in an oblique-angled black frame by designer Rosanne Vise means the anonymous elegant hotel bedroom in nearly every country in the world never occludes the actors. It’s virtually trashed at the end, consumed. The bluish hotel room carpet litters with the plastic killing everything in the sea.
Jess Bernberg has not only to punctuate with minute blackouts, but flash Midwest thunderstorms (a moment of writing this, Lewsetsein confides) and other suddenly-suffused bright or tenebrous moments; every scene’s subtly lit. Alexandra Faye Braithwaite produces an envelope of alienation and at one comi-tragic moment, a karaoke support. Shelley Maxwell’s movement is something everyone takes away, the audience inches from a tiny set, most of it bed and trip-up.
Consumption is the keyword in this Flickr of an affair: of a woman in her mid-forties and a man twenty years her junior who rescues her from an abusive colleague and loses his hotel bar job. It’s mainly chronological but with variants of previous scenes, amplifications, parallels flashing through in ten seconds. Yes think Nick Payne’s Constellations but with an undertow more intriguing and intricate.
It’s a sharp tender shock to register that youthful Charlotte Randle’s Leila, the great global-warming consultant, can be classed as a cougar, but the minimum age for that term seems to be coming down, and the term, once vaguely perjorative shift its meaning, to affirmative-perjorative. So what’s the male equivalent? Lewenstein rightly suggests the term is us.
Randle purrs then says intently at the outset ‘Just promise we me you know/fall in love.’ Though we’ve already seen the opposite end of this, and even the next moment. Lewenstein not only suggests the instability of memory – something she explored in heart-wrenching witness in Now This is Not the End about her own Holocaust-surviving grandmother and dementia. She’s also suggesting the way we order our memories shapes that experience, or indeed the way we think through the next moment shapes it and is shaped by what’s just happened. So what if that’s thrust into a future continuum in the play? Recognition certainly, but more than knowingness.
The apoltical barboy John, Mike Noble to whom Leila addresses this, moves from ingénue to informed through cynical and spent. Is he what’s consumed? Leila’s lecturing to CEOs on the importance of sustainability, she’s passionate about it. But she’s also passionate about how she’s right to enjoy the lifestyle she does, its incredible consumption. She finally it infects the waste-hating John too. In an extraordinary scene, vegetarian (for C2O reasons) Leila orders up the heart of an animal and they consume it. Whose heart is the obvious telling corollary. It’s worthy of Strindberg. The conspicuous wastes begins to festoon the once pristine floors.
It’s not just this Leila begins to consume. At one point she makes a confession, literally going out on a street to be mistaken for a prostitute. John also tracks her down – strictly against the anonymous element of their affair – to make his own discoveries. Asked by her what word sums her up he says early on ‘inscrutable.’ By the end, John’s sacrificed quite a lot socially, but there’s more for him to lose perhaps. and Leila, Lewenstein suggests by the end isn’t as armoured as we’re meant to think.
Randle’s thrillingly volatile as Leila, full of power and command, softening in a half-second to love and indeed pity as John faces her with some bad news of his own, their acute vulnerability shown just a moment in something outside them.
Randle’s lithe and inviting too, sometimes savage, enacting that archetypal lunge for prey. But she can turn violent too: desire for rough in return – a shuddering reach back to that abusive off-stage colleague. She’s expelling demons with desire, and in her wild celebration – it’s impossible to feel she’s wholly undeserving of it – there’s a feral whoop too. What disastered with that colleague? And who does she receive calls from? It’s a terrific performance.
Noble manages a fine-tuned shift from innocent to accusing experience, the young man learning enough to know he’s in an eternal kept bubble, available at a moment’s notice and in a eternal sexual limbo. If I’m not entirely convinced by their sexual chemistry it’s because Noble’s character is perhaps just that bit kind, or blankly young. But he unleashes a superb scena of questions Leila has to confront and adapt to if she’s to keep him. Ryan Layden makes brief waiter and doppleganger appearances.
Lewnstein’s brilliance sashays between internal and external pressures, societal, sexual, stereotypical, and the choices we can really make: as insignificant and as mighty as saving a plastic bag, or a heart. More importantly, she sets it within the context of a global concern played out against the grain of re-animated sexual mores, sexual fears of only slighter older women as urgent as Collette’s Gigi. A indictment of patriarchy and indeed a still-flourishing paedophile culture. You must see this.