Arriving at the Trafalgar Studios you may unwittingly feel that you have walked into the wrong venue given the amount of signage for what appears to be a rather bombastic Macbeth with a certain Mr McAvoy seeming to dominate events.
Take closer order and you will discover that their intimate studio space is currently playing host to a drama that packs an equally shocking emotional punch. However it is one that sets aside the grandiose Shakespearian tragedy and instead hits you unaware from its home within a destabilising, and ultimately disturbing, modern naturalism.
Jack Thorne is a very promising writer, whose previous credits have included co-writing Greenland for the National and adapting The Physicists at the Donmar. In Mydidae, Thorne demonstrates the knack of not just writing well-crafted naturalistic dialogue but also developing concepts where a surface simplicity artfully hides unexpectedly complex depths.
Setting a play in a bathroom is such an obviously winning idea that it begs the question why it hasn’t been explored to this level of precision before. Playwrights are constantly searching for new ways to shine a light onto the way people relate to each other and the bathroom as a location is one that throws up intriguing questions about the public/private nature of the space and the contested and malleable boundaries that are placed upon it.
Throughout the play this question of boundaries keeps reoccurring. We see the boundaries of David’s job constantly shift into the private. The boundaries of their relationship are seen to constantly dissolve and reform. The balance of power is a contested space between them and even the audience is challenged on the assumptions it makes.
It is telling that one of the opening images of the play is the invasion of Marion’s private world by David’s very public phone conversation. In the technologically connected modern world the public persona blurs the boundaries of what was traditionally accepted to be the private.
A person can no longer easily control their own private space outside of what exists internally. However Thorne shows how this world of connectedness does not necessarily lead to more openness. Whilst Marion and David believe they have shared everything, they have in fact used sharing as a mechanism for locking away what most needs communicating.
This is another reason why the bathroom as a location makes sense. The audience will naturally take cues from visual signifiers based in the set’s décor. Certain assumptions will be made about characters based on the set dressing and costume design, but a bathroom contains a blank uniformity that makes locating questions of time, place or class difficult. As a result the language itself reasserts its dominance. To understand the audience must take its cue from the conversation and the characterisation.
There is also an obvious vulnerability involved in the use of the bathroom. It is where an individual can feel at their most exposed, their physical nakedness being heavily symbolic of their emotional nakedness. The couples opening verbal sparring about Marion’s weight – a misjudged remark that leads to a set of barbed remarks and swift backtracking – is unlikely to have taken place in another context and is reflective of the emotional instability that can occur when feeling so exposed.
It is worth dwelling on the issue of nakedness; whilst no longer a rarity on the stage, nudity is still something that challenges both performers and the audience. There is an undoubted power in the act of undressing – perhaps more so than the nudity itself – as if stripping away layers of clothing helps peel away the pretensions of acting, making it easier to associate with the character rather than the actor.
The fact it is set in a bathroom means that the act of undressing will be fundamental to the play. Hidden insecurities are quite literally laid bare. Characters seemingly so confident when presented to the outside world are shown reflecting on their physical imperfections; their reliance on verbal dexterity as a defensive tool loses power in a place where more primal techniques seem to take primacy.
As a construct it works splendidly, with all due credit going to Keir Charles and Phoebe Waller-Bridge who display an uncanny naturalism in performance. Keir Charles’s David blows a hole in the myth that it is only women who are insecure about their appearance. Charles’ captures perfectly the way that men hide such insecurities behind a comic shield – even when alone bodies are not displayed as they are but instead in a manner that over-exaggerates the male idea of a woman’s fantasy. It is a brave performance steeped in a natural truthfulness that adds significant depth to the character of David.
Leaving the issue of nudity aside, Keir Charles and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are excellent as David and Marion. They have the casual, natural interplay that makes you believe in them as a couple; they finish sentences for each other, and make shorthand references to shared experiences that create a sense of believable history between them.
Thorne’s script delivers little moments dotted throughout, possibly that have come out of the rehearsal process, where innocuous remarks reverberate and hint at an unexplained backstory. However rather than excluding, within the intimacy of the space and the setting it works to draw the audience into the relationship.
Waller-Bridge is utterly convincing as the public-school Marion – artfully intelligent, unable to quite hide her intellectual superiority in conversation with David and retaining a slight aloofness that asserts itself in a struggle to identify with emotional issues that are not within her range of understanding.
Keir Charles is equally engaging as the boyfriend. Whilst not entirely buying into his roots in the working-class, the perceived differences in social class were well handled and helped to reinforce the underlying pressure on the relationship. It was evident in neat little touches like the self-conscious attitude to the choice of wine, the indecision over placing candles round the bath and his lack of ability to talk openly about failure. By barely perceptible degrees Thorne hints at the tensions and the pressures that lead the play to its crescendo.
It is a shocking and revealing climax and one that is, debatably, not quite the right decision in what had previously been a masterfully naturalistic piece of writing. In my opinion it wasn’t quite justified by the preceding action and as a result it made the structure and the denouement in the final act problematic. However, in the interest of balance, there are others who bought into the concept and felt that, while extreme, the character arcs were coherent.
A play that splits opinions is no bad thing. And a play that is as well acted and well written as Mydidae is also no bad thing. It creates something quite striking out of something quite simple and that, in itself, is something that can be celebrated.