FringeReview UK 2023
SAP will endure as both a superb play and key witness in a struggle for acceptance, to be heard. See it.
Writer Rafaella Marcus, Director Jessica Lazar, Set & Costume Designer Ruta Irbite, Lighting Designer David Doyle, Composer & Sound Designer Tom Foskett-Barnes, Movement Director Jennifer Fletcher, Associate Director Charlotte Vickers
Till April 22nd
70 minutes of “passion, power and photosynthesis.” Rafaella Marcus’ SAP, acclaimed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2022 arrives at the Soho Theatre Upstairs till April 22nd, directed by Jessica Lazar.
And if you think that’s a typical Fringe-y hook, Marcus’ first full-length play more than justifies it, and its transfer to the West End. It’s also an unusually pithy summary: of a rapturous love affair, its undermining by a dark force too close to both lovers, and the way the Apollo/Daphne myth allows flight and – just possibly – redemption.
David Doyle works lighting miracles with both club scenes and office scenes, alleys, sudden almost claustral density as a sacred foliage envelops the protagonist in red, and with Ruta Irbite’s simple dazzling mirrored floor allows the whole to reflect up with a brilliant glare or gulphs of dark. Jennifer Fletcher keeps everything fluid on the stage’s narrow strip with ritual polarities and only brief, heart-stopping clinches. Tom Foskett-Barnes’ sound composition is really effective when we hear it – we could have done with a few more deft touches.
Sassy, engaging Jessica Clark (Versailles, BBC2) compels as the nameless central character (sometimes Daphne) with Rebecca Banatvala as her lover and several other roles, including a dangerous male fling and Miriam, ambiguous regal fixer. Most of all though, it’s about what happens when you lie to your lover about a previous fling. Because admitting to bisexuality means exposure to biphobia. That you’re not committed, might leave for a man. It’s a given here, and that side – the sexual politics – isn’t explored so much as personal consequences. Marcus and Lazar keep this tight, so one dimension’s untapped.
Summarised as a “queer urban fable” SAP is marketed as a ‘contemporary thriller with ancient roots’. Literally. “There’s a house with trees in it” at the start. Though such worked-in tropes often fall redundant, literally so much herbage, Marcus makes this tell because at the climax, enacting that myth, she never loses sight of psychological flight side-by-side with the reality. Despite all the poetry, the rapt ending, this is grounded in the concrete of Docklands flats, cul-de-sacs, broken glass. And the sheer narrative energy kept up by Clark above all, qualifies it as a thriller with an explosive climax.
But the protagonist is in a sense sexually invisible. Bisexual, she’s slept with men, but “I always want to do a better job with women so it’s like – performance anxiety.” Love comes after a relatively pointless fling when drawn to a lesbian bar she encounters Banatvala in her core goddess role and is told by her: ”You are glorious…. I don’t think anyone had ever called me that.”
It’s a wondrous moment, but we’re also aware Clark’s woman has entered what she calls The Community, and just related an early relationship with another bisexual woman; who’s scandalised Clark’s character can choose gender like a “tonight’s Ladies night… that I could choose like that.” It’s something that can get forgotten in the green rush of SAP – that even amongst other bisexual women there’s division.
Banatvala swivels both sibyl-like and passionate, with sizzling chemistry between the two sometimes twisted to slight anxiety, deep concern, then building. By the end trust is hollowed out to a blank “please keep talking.” Structurally my only quibble is that Banatvala’s characters don’t have quite enough to do.
Marcus deftly avoids clunk. At one point (where would be telling) the protagonist, working at a womens’ charity, is tasked with tweeting: “Focus on LGBTQ+ this week.” She’s told blandly: “Did you know bisexual women are significantly more likely… to have experienced partner abuse … to be sexually assaulted…mental illness, self-harm, suicidal ideation, drug and/or alcohol dependency…” Delivered with ironic gloss, throwaway, Clark underscores her own invisibility – no-one at work guesses any of this could apply to her – and the sheer gestural mechanics of the well-intentioned. By now we know what this means.
The plot itself – you see the first twist coming only seconds before – absolutely compels and allows all the control and nastiness a hinterland and history, a dark psychology and the way a profession like law nurtures sociopathy. We’ve seen it in Prima Facie and Consent. SAP also addresses class and privilege, as realised in two characters, the way it works itself out in gender. Indeed Clark’s character is surrounded by privileged people like Miriam. Though herself resoundingly middle-class she wryly confesses the seduction of wealth.
Whist some might find the given – of not confessing bisexuality to a woman with at least some bi-phobic issues – doesn’t expand to discuss this, to do so might lose the edge of this play: its flight, its conviction that one day “things that blossom will follow me and shade me as I go.” Admittedly biphobia within part of the lesbian community is established enough (I remember the same arguments with friends back in the 1980s) for at least some elements to be telegraphed in a play.
But again, that’s not an easy conversation, opening up a lot of hurt SAP can’t address on its own. Like several queer plays at Soho recently, and more peripherally say Sugar Coat revived at the Southwark – the diversity of discrimination and conversations we need to have, is flourishing. And SAP will endure as both a superb play and key witness in that struggle for acceptance, to be heard. See it.