LOVE AND OTHER ACTS OF VIOLENCE
by Cordelia Lynn
Directed by Elayce Ismail
Donmar Warehouse – until 27 November
The birth of a new star is always a source of theatrical excitement and it’s been a while since we’ve seen a professional debut as impressive as that of Abigail Weinstock, the sole female cast member of this powerful new play, a triumphant reopening production for the Donmar. Weinstock plays a young Jewish research physicist, a beautiful, brittle, brilliant young woman with a sardonic edge and, as becomes clear as the play progresses, a mother load of inherited trauma. It’s a terrific role, and Weinstock inhabits it fully, unforgettably, capturing every nuance of this complex character. She also, later, plays one of her ancestors, another intelligent, sensitive soul but one unfortunate enough to be living in the Polish city of L’viv in 1918, the year of the Lemberg Pogrom.
If much of the epilogue of Cordelia Lynn’s finely tuned script feels apocalyptic, that’s because, to the Jewish people caught up in this seismic, vicious concerted attack, that’s exactly what it was. Interestingly though, and perhaps controversially, Lynn’s text seems to suggest that the perpetrators of atrocities are condemned to be haunted by their own actions in a similar way to their victims.
Director Elayce Ismail and the creative team of Basia Bińkowska (design), Joshua Pharo (lighting) and Richard Hammarton (sound) collaborate on a terrifying scene transition. The thunderous aural effects, moments of stark illumination, and debris raining from the skies, are followed immediately by a final sequence of quiet, agonised tension that tellingly, tragically ties up all loose ends in the script while forcefully hammering home the point that, in the most extreme examples of humans being irredeemably cruel to each other, nobody ever wins.
Prior to the lengthy, historical epilogue Lynn’s play is an edgy, often bleakly funny two hander about an unlikely, but entirely credible, dysfunctional relationship between Weinstock’s character (named in the programme as ‘Her’) and the nervy activist poet (Tom Mothersdale, delivering some of his career best work to date) who picks her up at her own party. The fault lines in the relationship and the eruption into bodily harm and anti-Semitism are not easy to watch, a fact exacerbated by the accuracy of the performances and production (fight director Yarit Dor’s work is alarmingly, uncomfortably convincing, especially given the intimate nature of the venue). Much of this is pretty hard to stomach, despite being shot through with some jet black laughs, but stick with it as the relevance to modern day issues and the emotional catharsis are a satisfying, essential pay-off for going through the wringer.
If initially the play resembles Patrick Marber’s Closer and Nick Payne’s Constellations, both of which highlight the unexpected brutalities sometimes lurking within romantic/sexual liaisons, Lynn goes several steps further, allowing her principal figures to descent into actual physical violence. Her dialogue style is tart, taut and realistic, sliding periodically into something richer and more poetic. As a writer she seems intriguingly drawn to the “what if”s of an allegedly civilised world descending into chaos (her 2018 play One For Sorrow at the Royal Court covered similar terrain) and the initial humour of this new piece gives way pretty quickly to appalled alarm as we begin to realise that the two main characters are inhabiting a universe where anti-Semitism segregation is the acceptable norm. It’s both a dystopian fantasy rooted in reality, and a warning… and it feels horribly topical. There’s also a scene change that is an authentic coup de theatre.
Unafraid to pull it’s punches, Ismail’s beautifully orchestrated production is a grimly exciting 100 minutes, with a pair of outstanding performances from Mothersdale and Weinstock. There are many plays that chronicle the disgusting treatment meted out to Jewish people throughout history, but here’s one that makes an explicit connection between historical wrongs and the present day. It’s devastating, dark and rich …and in Ms Weinstock we could be looking at the next Arterton or Atwell. This is one not to miss. What a way to reopen this powerhouse venue.