Night-time in a hotel room: ever the theatrical petri dish for ethical-experiments-come-catastrophes.
This is how the production team of Children and Animals, running at the North Wall Arts Centre for two nights only, describe the play. It is a fitting introduction, and the play fully exploits the dramatic potential of its premise (Night-time. A hotel room. A couple.), as the tragicomic (and at times deliberately grotesque) script unfolds.
Despite the premise, Children and Animals is not just about a couple. The two protagonists, Sally (Emma D’Arcy), a Philosophy student, and Tim (Nicholas Finerty), a member of the town council, are lovers. Sally has called a prostitute, May (Kara Chamberlain), to join them at the hotel. However, as in any good script, nothing is what it seems. Tim is actually married, and Sally hasn’t called May to perform any sexual favours. Rather, Sally wants May to help Tim overcome his strangling sense of guilt over the violent death of a child. As a member of the town council, he proposed to switch off the lights in the park to save money, and the girl was killed as she was walking back home from school through the dark park. Besides, May is only a sixth-form student, prostituting herself to make ends meet. This is not just the story of a personal tragedy — Tim bears the weight of a shattered community on his shoulders, experiencing a sense of sole culpability for a society which does increasing violence to young women, whether it is through direct or indirect action.
The oddity of Tim and Sally’s situation, coupled with Tim’s guilt over the child’s death, result in his extremely neurotic state at the beginning of the play. Finerty perfectly captured Tim’s Woody-Allen-like neurosis which provided a quasi-comic aspect, especially through tics and twitches and an almost hysterical tone of voice. His anxiety and confusion were punctuated by seemingly incongruous monologues about lack, and particularly the powerful idea that lack (or, rather the feeling of desire) is sometimes more noticeable than the missing object itself. These monologues turned out to be attempts at composing a speech for the dead girl’s funeral. They added an extra layer to the play, portraying Tim’s struggle to translate his feelings into words. To me, the choice to represent this difficulty was also a realistic one: a script that self-consciously (and metapoetically?) represents a character’s search for the right words is somehow more believable than one that features the perfect speeches for such tragic events. Facial expressions were also crucial for Sally’s characterisation, which D’Arcy delivered with utmost intensity. This was possibly one of the reasons why the audience was told to sit as close to the front as possible, to experience the full effect of their more subtle gestures. Furthermore, the play is a very intimate one (what setting can be more intimate than a bedroom?), and sitting closer to the actors surely enhanced this intimacy (albeit with an uncomfortable, if intentional, sense of voyeurism).
The stage design was meticulously crafted, with astonishing attention to detail. The space of the hotel bedroom was reduced to the bed and bedside tables, with rolled bathrobes on the pillows, a mini fridge beneath one the bedside tables, lamps on the tables, a backpack on the floor by one side of the bed… Additionally, there were posies on the floor around the bed. Their arrangement, and especially the use of the part of the apron-stage extending past the proscenium as the only theatrical space, made the whole set look like a chapelle ardente. This highlighted the irony of the play’s scenario — despite Sally and Tim’s best efforts to put the past behind them, death envelops them, the murder of the young child permanently lurking in the background as the catalyst for the play’s events.
However, death was not obviously present at the beginning of the play. The first few scenes between Sally and Tim, and between the two of them and May, had a Manhattan Murder Mystery vibe, propelled by Tim’s neurosis and Sally’s attempts to calm him down. Nonetheless, the play slowly built up a tragicomic, and then plain tragic development. The kind of tragedy created under Thomas Bailey’s impeccable direction was not of the grand, superhuman type familiar from Ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama, but rather the everyday, petty kind. The setting of a disappointing hotel room, lacking the view promised on the travel-booking website, provided a fitting background. Besides, although it is perhaps a bit far-fetched to see a break of the fourth wall every time a window is mentioned in drama, the repeated insistence on the lack of the promised view, together with Tim’s initial soliloquy about the evidence of lack (perhaps with Jacques Lacan in mind), and the production’s insistence on the audience sitting close to the stage, constantly eroded any division between actors and spectators. This was particularly felt in a lights-off scene towards the end of the performance, in which it proved necessary to be sitting close to the stage in order to discern what was going on.
As it developed, the script presented its main themes quite clearly: love, death, childhood, sense of guilt, and loss were all presented fairly explicitly. In a sense, Tim’s initial monologue on the theme of lack provided a key to read the treatment of these themes: all of them were present, but their presence was emphasised by the absence of explicit events onstage relating to them. The death of the child was not shown, but nonetheless it was the spur for the whole story; Tim and Sally’s love was only mentioned briefly, although the events presented clearly affected it deeply; Tim’s sense of guilt was explained little by little, and yet it was the reason why Sally called May; May’s young age was only mentioned in passing, but the audience was left wondering about the kind of community which would allow young students to prostitute themselves. In this sense, it posed more questions than it answered, but it did so by adding extra food for thought. That Sally is a Philosophy student is not a detail to be disregarded: in one scene, she and May discuss whether the latter’s profession is at all ethical. I could not help but see this as a nod to the audience, an invitation to reflect more deeply on the themes foregrounded in the play. While the majority of the play has a grotesque and trivial demeanour, it concludes on a potentially hopeful note: Sally points out that it’s getting dark, and May replies that it is not quite dark yet. In these last words it is possible to perceive the deflation, the final breath of the play.
The one aspect that left me wondering was the title. Does it refer to the little girl killed in the dark park? Or to May, a young girl who plays with exploiting the most animal side of human nature, and who’s now faced with something far deeper and more complex than this? While I struggled to find an answer, part of me is tempted to fall into the (facile?) belief that the best works of art are never too obvious in their meaning. Children and Animals is a complex play, both in its premise and execution. Besides, there’s a great deal left unsaid and a few unsolved doubts (did Tim kill the child? Does Tim die at the end?). In a sense, the play manages to achieve the kind of complexity Hemingway attained through his ‘iceberg style’: to show only the surface of things ultimately makes the matter deeper than if everything were in plain sight. Florence Read’s writing is powerful and cutting, but at the same time poetic and moving. This production certainly did justice to the script through mesmerizing and gripping performances, each capturing the essence of its character. With such a talented team and compelling work, it is no surprise that the play has been offered a slot at the Pleasance theatre in the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe.
Children and Animals was developed as part of the ‘Artists in Progress // Young Theatre Network programme and ran for two nights only, 4 and 5 March, at the North Wall Arts Centre. For more events at the North Wall, please visit their website.