Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre
25 January 2018
American playwright Annie Baker is a unique talent, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and her play The Flick was a major hit here in 2016. This was my first experience of her extraordinary style, a slow unfolding of events that mainly seem minor, but paint a vast landscape of history and emotional struggle. The setting is a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, a week after Thanksgiving. Into this American Gothic setting arrive Elias and Jenny, a troubled young couple, greeted by their host, Mertis, “Welcome to your home from home!” she exclaims. They look, as we do, at a home cluttered full of dolls, ornaments, the Christmas tree whose lights periodically fuse and then come back on. There are eyes everywhere.
The play is beautifully acted, the naturalism, in the main, hyper real and James Macdonald’s forensic production takes over three hours to unfold, with every line of Baker’s script landing perfectly. Mertis, a beautiful performance by Marylouise Burke, is the benign host that controls everything, she opens the plush red curtain that separates us from the action, she moves time forward, the day moves with her, and she pitches perfectly Mertis’s homespun warmth and mystery. Does her husband George even exist? Why does she talk of the rooms upstairs existing only occasionally? Tom Mothersdale as Elias and Anneika Rose as his girlfriend Jenny are perfect, his ailments, and his inability to complete telling a story, all signs of a young man emotionally impotent, she a possible liar who is unfaithful to him, trapped, incapable of moving forward.
“Would you like to meet my friend Genevieve?” says Mertis at the end of Act One, and yes, we would, as she is superbly played by June Watson. Blind, forthright, talking frankly of her descent into madness, she and Mertis are symbols of survivors, who have come through their past as the younger couple struggle to cope with their technological present and their relationship disintgrates. Watson hits her lines perfectly, and, just when the world created seems to exist in a kind of snow globe, the naturalism is shattered when Baker has Genevieve break the fourth wall and, in the second interval, perform a front of curtain speech outlining her seven stages of madness. The play is like that- impossible to second guess.
But what does it all mean? Chloe Lamford’s superb design allows history to suffocate the present. I found joy in the fact that when characters go upstairs, we hear them moving around and talking upstairs! This is a world were inanimate objects are given human feelings and emotions, where dolls are cared for more than people, and where Jenny, at one point, refuses to move and is manipulated like a doll by Elias. Mertis reveals that the house used to be the hospital during the Civil War, and limbs piled up ten foot high outside the windows. Like Miller and Shepard, Baker uses the minutiae of life to expose the wheels of history, the free states of the North fighting the slave states of the South on this historical site pressing in on inter racial couple Elias and Jenny, and it’s as if the Great American Novel is being turned, page by page, in front of us.
Slow TV, and slow radio, is big at the moment, and maybe this is slow theatre. If you are a car chase and explosions kind of viewer, this is possibly not the play for you. But I loved it, even though it will take me days to unpack everything in it, and even then I may not know exactly what is going on. Unique and extraordinary, have I already seen the play of the year?