REVIEW: Wink, Theatre 503 ✭✭✭✭✭

Wink at Theatre 503
Photo: Savannah Photographic

Theatre 503.
March 12 2015
5 Stars

The intimate space of Theatre 503, above The Latchmere in Battersea, currently hosts a remarkable and remarkably thought-provoking debut play by Pheobe Eclair-Powell, with expert direction by Jamie Jackson, and two top-notch performances at its heart. WINK is in essence two inter-twined monologues that together develop the real and virtual connections between teenager Mark (Sam Clemmett) and his school teacher, John (Leon Williams), who is only ten years or so older.

It is the narrative of a week in their lives, which appears to describe the normal interactions of playground, corridor and classroom alongside the rhythms of their unhappy domestic settings, before finally opening out into an unexpectedly dark and troubling investigation of the fragility of personal identity and the increasingly blurred and provisional meaning of all types of relationships in an age of social media.

Mark comes over initially as a completely average teenage boy – whether in looks, abilities, or social interactions – with the exception of his phenomenal research skills in online pornography. Likewise, John is a recognizable type of cocky, cynical young schoolmaster all-too-aware of his classic good looks and ready to invite adulation from the impressionable both in life and online.

Initially it looks as though the play will simply explore the familiar theme of the undeserved idolisation of teacher by a student, but we quickly move into murkier territory as it becomes clear that both parties live out the largest parts of their emotional lives in social media exchanges. Mark tries to get closer to John’s life by accessing his girlfriend’s Facebook profile and inventing a fantasy profile which might appeal to her.

Unknown to him, John, though already two-timing his girlfriend, is monitoring and manipulating her profile too, and comes to believe that she is deceiving him with this mystery friend. An increasingly explicit and intimate dialogue with many moments of ingenious hilarity spirals quickly out of control before colliding with real life in a tense, disturbing and increasingly sombre denouement that leaves everyone damaged to different degrees.

Such a bald summary cannot do justice to the feisty, comedic flair of the writing that builds character and layers of irony with real care and craft. Phoebe Éclair-Powell has a fine ear for naturalistic dialogue that is all the same very artful and deft with plenty of bravura riffs and effective moments of rhetoric on the one hand and credible pathos too.

Vivid imagery provides incidental colour, but it crucially remains quite plausible in the mouths of the characters. The jargon of internet dating, schoolboy naiveté, and joshing young male profanity is blended with real skill. There is clever inter-cutting of reported speech, internal reflection and actual dialogue, with fine varieties of pace between monologue and rapid-fire vocal overlay. In sum, this text displays the same emotional depth and concern for the humble little details of everyday life that you find in ‘Jumpers for Goal Posts’ and other recent examples of contemporary realist stagecraft.

There is psychological insight here as well as well as brilliant comedy, and all the more effective for being devoid of any didactic framework. We are invited to reflect on how fragile the bravado of young male psychology actually is. This is not simply the theme of undeserved hero-worship that is bound to be disappointed, or the question of what it is that should define the difference between a boy and a man.

More telling is the way that an undertow of unspoken, undiscussed grief in both characters prevents the emergence of real emotional maturity. In the end it is acknowledgement of a background of dysfunctional family life and loss that allows Mark to grow while John is diminished into a hollowed out if still handsome shell. His unacknowledged self-deception, which builds on prior insecurities, is shown to be the root of the most selfish, damaging behavior towards others in the whole play, and it is a self-deception in which John remains trapped.

The play also has a great deal to tell us about the increasing impact of the internet on our own sense of who we are. It captures the sense of inter-connectedness, reach and exuberant sense of misplaced mastery that is available to every armchair user. As Mark says: “I am wired, awake, my mind full, my eyes fuller. I can’t even blink any more but I can’t stop looking, staring into this space where everyone else is.’ It asks the awkward question of how can we distinguish between truth and fiction in the world of online dating, and whether we actually suspend disbelief in the process.

Above all, the drama demonstrates how a quick unexamined accumulation of false ungrounded online assumptions can scramble the mind like a speeded-up film. You could perhaps criticize this play for a plot of decreasing plausibility, but that is in a way the whole point. In the parallel world of instant communication the pauses for thought necessary and inevitable in other forms of human interaction are elided or glossed over.

This is a real not a theoretical danger, and we are left with the question of what this all means for the authenticity of personal relationships when so much of our information gathering and communication is now virtual rather than actual. However, the final resting point of this drama is a human one: that the internet does not of itself create deceit and betrayal but only adds compound interest to prior psychological disconnects, providing greater scope for social damage than used to be the case.

This could have been a static production focused purely on the already powerfully persuasive narrative voices;but it is greatly to the credit of the creative team that a lot of thought has gone into the integration of movement, suitable lighting effects and memorably apposite music. At key points in the story the actors create symbolic tableaus that distil and capture the emotional essence of the action. It is not simply that there is always something over and above the excellent acting to engage the eye; it is more that the visual deliberately adds a dimension of aesthetic hyper-reality that takes you beyond the all-too-gritty literalism of the text into a cinematic realm where you can more fully pause and register the emotional import of what you have just witnessed.

There is no better and more telling example of this than a moment near the very end when ashes gently rain down on John as he stretches out his arms: is this the symbolic self-incineration of his hopes and plans as the play reaches its end, or just a sad, silent commentary on the unresolvable despair that has come to him now, and will surely come later to Mark and ultimately – in time – to all of us – as the golden hopes of youth turn to compromised frustration? It is testament to the deep impression made by this play on its audience that its literal and symbolic meanings in text, vision and movement left many layers of resonance behind in a long moment of appreciative silence before we could record our appreciation of the performers.

This remarkable eighty-minute sequence must surely be given another outing soon, but in the meantime do make every effort to catch it in the final stages of its opening run.

Wink continues at Theatre 503 until April 4, 2015

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