FringeReview UK 2023
Understanding traumatic narrative from the outside: seeing through a skylight, darkly. An impressive debut
Written by Ava Wong Davies and Directed by Anna Himali Howard with Izzy Rabey, Designed by Mydd Pharo, Lighting Designer Jai Morjaria, Sound Designer & Composer Anna Clock,
Associate Director Jasmine Teo, Production Manager Julie Fraire Willemoes
Stage Managers Marie-Angelique St. Hill and Rachel Rieley,
Royal Court Production: Casting Directors Amy Ball & Arthur Carrington, Stage Supervisor TJ Chappell-Meade, Lead Producer Sarah Georgeson, Lighting Supervisor Max Cherry, Sound Supervisor Katie Price, Lighting, Programmer Stephen Settle, Costume Supervisor Jet Sharp
Till March 11th
“I meet you at a barbecue… I wish we hadn’t met there…” Ava Wong Davies’ Graceland – a monologue delivered by Sabrina Wu and directed by Anna Himali Howard with Izzy Rabey, is full of litanic repeats and slow-burn lyricism. Till it isn’t. “I don’t believe in love at first sight but I feel like I’m falling …” is delivered with a sense this can’t end in a glow.
The play’s prefaced by quotes from poets Caroline Bird and Anne Carson, and it’s not simply that the ‘you’ Wu’s Nina addresses is a poet: poetry’s intricacies refrains and structuring inform the 70-minute piece, indeed with echoes of Carson in it.
Nina’s an unambitious receptionist who’s decided not to take on her parents’ restaurant, or rather they’ve decided she doesn’t want to. It’s a repeat pattern. Asked by Gabriel (we learn his name late) Nina declares she has no opinion about her job, joking she might like to be a kept woman.
There’s a subtle subtext beyond the already-nuanced relationship narrative. Nina’s bleached-out ambition contrasts with the poet’s clear direction, but also his wealth and subtle manipulativeness. Very quickly there’s silences and even when they bond the aloofness of control and privilege wraps round in Wu’s delivery like a silk knot. Both narrating and addressing her lover, Nina has arrived at the point of wanting answers, but knowing where they’ll come from.
By contrast her friend Sam and partner Josh – significantly Gabriel soon suggests Nina’s outgrown Sam – enter as normative presences, showing the other couple’s weather in the way Nina and Gabriel judge them a deux or suddenly where Nina wakes up to what she’s missing.
The slow sliding into abuse and fightback, the understated manner counterpointed with sexual harassment at work (Nina equally passive despite Gabriel’s exhortations) suggests Wong Davies isn’t simply anatomising a controlling relationship, but commenting on Nina’s prior shaping, her hollowed-out life.
Wu keeps this quietly searing piece airborne, and the writing suddenly acquires a virtuosic dimension late on when the same dramatic crisis pays out in different ways delivered at an increasingly frantic pace. It’s a hint of what Wong Davies might be capable of, and another one or two moments like that might have been welcome.
It’s a satisfying crisis though. Physically Wu has little to do but circle a bed like a ghost tethered to a grave, strip it to a grave indeed, earth under the mattress, and otherwise lean back into Mydd Pharo’s set of piled earth on each side of the traverse, as the dirt of what’s happened begins to smear into her.
There’s a startling moment of water, counteracting the overall stillness, occasioning some activity in the last ten minutes. Jai Morjaria’s skylighting gives on a steady bleakness, as if Wu inhabits the dingy bedsit of her mind throughout, despite the narrative. Anna Clock’s sound composition gives an ominous low cello buzz: the bass-note of what’s happening.
Wong Davies has superbly caught how conditioning can ready you for falling hard for abuse: especially the kind of man who mixes aloof fascination with sleight-of-control techniques. The elliptical, poetic compressions mostly cohere but like poetry the absences are designed to make sudden leaps.
Wu’s tonal palette, her sudden shifts to crisis, are all delivered with impressive control though the play is nothing if not understated, making us do some of the work. That though is understanding traumatic narrative from the outside: seeing through a skylight, darkly. An impressive debut, and it’ll be fascinating to see how Wong Davies explores larger dimensions.