Friday, March 20, 2009

Singing Songs of Sixpence

Yesterday Richard and I trekked to the Cultch’s new studio space extension on Victoria Drive, the Vancity Culture Lab as the venue has been so dubbed by those in charge of marrying corporate donations to creative ferment, and the first phase of the Cultch’s ongoing expansion to be opened to the public. We were there to see the Rumble Productions/Theatre Conspiracy co-production of David Harrower’s Blackbird. The play is a two-hander about a 59-year old man, Ray, who works as some sort of floor manager in a pharmaceutical plant in an unnamed part of England, and Una, a young woman in her late 20s, who has tracked Ray down at his place of work. Ray, or Peter as he now seems to be called, is clearly not happy to see Una, and has escorted her into the plant’s garbage-strewn cafeteria at the top of the play in order that their conversation not be overheard or interrupted by his co-workers. The entire 90-minute play takes place in this sterile, brightly lit industrial space (for which the Culture Lab is ideally suited), and apart from a few brief moments when the lights are accidentally turned out by departing co-workers, and a final interruption that at once rescues and condemns him, Ray is unable to escape the intensity of Una’s emotional and verbal assault. Very quickly we learn why Ray is so nervous; he and Una have had a previous sexual relationship, one that began when Una was twelve.

But Harrower’s play is far from a clichéd revenge drama. Una’s motives for tracking Ray down are complex, and far from clear, even to herself. She accuses Ray of ruining her life, of destroying her relationship with her family, of subjecting her to years of finger-pointing and gossip from neighbours in the small town where their relationship began, and where she has continued to live. But she also admits that she felt drawn to Ray from the moment he first talked to her at a backyard barbecue hosted by her parents, that she still loves him, and that her anger at him stems as much from his apparent final abandonment of her in a hotel room in Newcastle as from the sexual liberties he earlier took with her there.

Ray himself is not your stereotypical predatory pedophile. Indeed, Harrower is at pains to present him as equally sympathetic a character, a man who is as surprised as he is horrified to discover he has fallen in love with a child, who has paid dearly for that discovery (six years in jail, to be exact), who has striven to rebuild his life as honestly as possible (including revealing to his new wife his prior conviction on morals and molestation charges), and who now sees that life unraveling before his eyes as Una’s return awakens the shame, fear, and, yes, lingering desire he thought he had long ago buried.

Taughtly written, the play alternates between sharp, staccato duologues and quieter, more lyrical monologues as the accusatory force and suspicious search for motives on the part of each character gradually gives way to earnest attempts on both their parts to find a form of closure for their relationship. This culminates in two moving speeches about the void in their respective lives that resulted from Ray’s fateful decision to step out for a cigarette prior to what was to have been their absconding together from Newcastle for Amsterdam. What Una has ever since imagined to be her desertion Ray clarifies was in fact his momentary failure of nerve, one long enough to allow the authorities to catch up with them, and to plunge them both into a nightmare denouement from which they have yet to emerge. Under the assured direction of Norman Armour, and with the aid of a haunting piano score deployed by sound designer Candelario Andrade at the moments of Una and Ray’s most naked revelation (I recognized the piece being played, but haven’t had time as yet to research it properly), performers Jennifer Mawhinney and Russell Roberts deliver precise and compelling portraits of two individuals caught in a cycle of mutual dependency that goes far beyond sexual obsession.

As with Paula Vogel’s equally riveting and disturbing portrait of Uncle Peck in How I Learned to Drive, Harrower does not fully exculpate Ray by the end of Blackbird. But neither does the play make him into some grotesque monster beyond redemption or comprehension. Both plays ask very difficult and morally ambiguous questions that are of course impossible even to entertain in popular media representations of the evil pedophile. Is it possible to draw a line between consent and abuse in any way other than the juridical? In inter-generational relationships should adult guilt and childhood innocence automatically be presumed? Is sexual maturity in fact an historically, socially, and personally fluid process? And whom exactly are we protecting in holding on so resolutely to the category of child in a culture that over-sexualizes children to such an extent as ours?

These questions are foregrounded even more starkly by Harrower through the introduction, late in the play, of Ray’s stepdaughter, of whose existence we, along with Una, had thus far been unaware. Having arrived, along with her mother, to pick Ray up from work, she bursts through the lunchroom door with her soccer ball, and sends Una scrambling to a corner to hide. However, when the soccer ball gets away from her, the girl discovers Una’s presence. Eventually she is sent away, leaving a shocked Una to confront, on behalf of the audience, Ray about whether or not he has tried anything with his ward. He denies ever considering the possibility, indeed curses Una for even suggesting it, and quickly runs out of the room in search of his wife. Una is left destroyed on the floor, at which point—whether within the real-time of the play proper, or as a purely symbolic concluding tableau, it remains unclear—the step-daughter returns with her soccer ball. She freezes in place, smiling beatifically off into the distance. Una looks at her in horror. We look at Una looking at her in horror. Blackout. Silence. Stunned applause.

This is actually the second production of Blackbird that I’ve seen, having caught its acclaimed West End transfer in London in the spring of 2006, following the play’s premiere at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival. I mention this not because I’m an original cast or first night diva, but because the London production (directed by Peter Stein, and starring Jodhi May and Roger Allam) featured a different ending. Following Ray’s stepdaughter’s abrupt and shocking entrance, and Ray’s subsequent exit, there is no return by the little girl. Instead, the blackout is followed by a door slamming, the sound of heels on concrete, the squeal of a car’s tires. After this, the lights come back up; the industrial lunchroom has been replaced by a car park, and Una is chasing after Ray’s blue Toyota (presumably his wife and stepdaughter arrived in a separate vehicle). Una succeeds in stopping the car, tugs Ray from it, and they struggle for a few minutes on the pavement, before collapsing onto one another in a cathartic heap. Final blackout.

I haven’t read the published playtext, but I suspect the coda to the London production was unscripted and improvised by Stein. I’m not sure which I prefer. Armour’s ending, while perhaps more faithful to the text, does seem to sway the moral balance somewhat against Ray—at least to judge by the reaction of the women sitting in front of us, with whom we had a brief conversation in the lobby upon exiting. Stein’s version, while a bit melodramatic and smacking, after 90 minutes of intensely dramatic verbal jousting, a bit too much of technical staginess, does have the virtue of leaving us with the image of Una and Ray together in a kind of mutual misery, both unable to “fly off into the light of the dark black night,” as Paul McCartney’s own song of sixpence puts it.

Either way, the play is a tasty theatrical dish to set before any audience.


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