Review: The Two Character Play – Jermyn Street ****

Jermyn Street Theatre, in programming Tennesse Williams’ The Two Character Play, incontrovertibly proves that fringe theatre is where the most daring, dangerous theatre finds a home.

This is no crowd-pleasing drama. Uncompromisingly impenetrable, this is Williams at his most dense and his most poetic. For actors and audience this is a dark piece; veering between intense, self-conscious theatricality and black comedy. Williams demands the audiences complete absorption throughout; the writing careers from sanity to madness, weaving in and out of reality and artifice; at times we watch the play, at times the play within a play. Perseverance is essential as the rewards of the exquisitely written second act are manifold. Everything becomes clear, but nothing is explained. The play glides frustratingly on to an inconclusive conclusion as infuriating as it is satisfying.

Williams’ Deep South is one of familial relationships soaked in loneliness and pain.

At first we appear to be on recognizable territory. Williams’ Deep South is one of familial relationships soaked in loneliness and pain.  “I draw every character out of my very multiple split personality” he wrote and undeniably this is a deeply personal play. In essence it is an exploration, through text, of his sister Rose’s descent into madness. Paul McEwan and Catherine Cusack play Felice and Clare, the disturbed brother and sister who, deserted by their acting company, present The Two Character Play, which features two characters, called Felice and Clare, a disturbed brother and sister. Their compelling, controlled performances are enhanced and intensified by the intimacy of the space.

This is a difficult journey for an audience, at times confusing, at others haunting. In moving away from his more accessible naturalistic style, Williams blends reality and illusion, using the construction of a play within a play to explore an endlessly repeating cycle that spirals ever down, from which perhaps, there is no escape. Whether the play within a play offers respite for Felice and Clare or further erodes their sanity is never clear. It is difficult to tell where the play stops, and where their reality begins. The role of the audience too is questionable. Are we, as suggested, largely irrelevant, or are we, more sinisterly, colluding in their descent? As Felice and Clare gaze out into the silence, the watchers become the watched, and the effect is intensely claustrophobic and suffocating.

In director Gene David Kirk’s hands, The Two Character Play is excoriating, a tense and absorbing evening, but it is not for the faint-hearted. It is a struggle and for many it simply will not make sense. This is obtuse, provocative theatre and, for its bravery alone, Jermyn Street should be lauded. Thankfully, this is risk taking that pays off, abundantly.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 20th November 2010
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