A Dead Body in Taos
Wilton’s Music Hall, London
There’s a body all right. But is there a death? That’s the question posed at the outset of A Dead Body in Taos. In David Farr’s fascinating new play, Sam, a 33-year-old journalist from the UK, arrives in the New Mexico desert to bury her estranged mother, Kath. But the task turns out to be rather more complex than she’d envisaged.
First, there’s the will, changed very recently to benefit Future Life Corporation, a mysterious biotech facility. Then there’s the even more jaw-dropping discovery that the same institution has worked with her mother, uploading her thoughts and memories to create a post-life AI Kath. When the enraged Sam threatens to contest the will, undead Kath pleads with her. If Sam succeeds, the technology will be switched off and Sam will have “killed” her mother. Soon Sam, understandably, is thrashing round her mother’s empty house, drinking heavily.
Farr’s play is a gripping mix of moral thriller, philosophical debate and psychological study. The playwright, inspired by film-maker Adam Curtis’s documentary series The Century of the Self, explores the growth of individualism, the nature of self and the illusion of choice. Through flashbacks, we watch Kath morph from radical young 1970s student to sleek 1980s designer marketing water to gullible consumers. Campaigning zeal gives way to self-development.
The drama also has echoes of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, delving into science fiction to ask thorny ethical questions. Churchill’s play uses cloning to consider identity, parenting, relationships and to ask: if you had the chance to start over, would you take it? Similar dilemmas emerge in Farr’s drama. Kath’s motives for “living” on, we learn, include the desire to repair her relationships with Sam and with former lover, Leo. Meanwhile, the digital world brings a new twist to existential issues that in previous centuries have fuelled religious debate. Where is the essence of a human being? Can you outwit mortality? Can you find redemption?
On stage, dry ideas become vivid, as various versions of young Kath burst across the stage, with Eve Ponsonby’s wonderful, fluid performance bringing out the stark contrast between them and the strangely absent cyborg she has become. There’s great work too from Gemma Lawrence as the truculent Sam and David Burnett as Leo, both bruised by their failed relationships with Kath. Apart from anything else, this is a study in grief. Rachel Bagshaw, directing this Fuel production, plays with layers of reality, using multiple screens and sending text cascading down a side panel, as if we are watching online.
Emotionally, the play is slightly held back by the fact that Kath is, in essence, fairly unlikeable. But it’s clever, clear and compelling.
To November 12, wiltons.org.uk
Hampstead Theatre, London
In The James Plays, Rona Munro wrote a pulsating, epic trilogy about three generations of Stewart kings: a Scottish response to Shakespeare’s history cycle. A fourth James drama is currently touring Scotland. But it’s a different rank of James who takes centre stage in her latest play. This time it’s Sir James Melville, influential diplomat and adviser to Mary Queen of Scots — and while the play is called Mary, it’s his painful journey that we watch unfold.
This is an altogether quieter piece than those earlier works. A tightly focused political chamber drama set in 1567, it’s played out in panelled back rooms, while the monarch who gives the play its title is a spectral individual (Meg Watson) only glimpsed from time to time. But the idea of her is ever present, inspiring great loyalty in some, great loathing in others. And it’s what happened to her behind another set of closed doors that is the crux of the drama.
Munro pitches the action on either side of a contested episode at the Earl of Bothwell’s castle. Was Mary abducted and raped? Or was the sex consensual? Melville feels strongly that it was the former (as does the playwright). But the queen’s enemies cite her subsequent marriage to Bothwell as evidence to the contrary and spot a route to her downfall. The play works up to a tight, knotty exploration of the way genuine beliefs entwine with personal frailty, vested interests and political expediency.
Douglas Henshall is excellent as Melville. At first, confident in his position and in his principles, he lords it over Thompson, a fictitious lowly servant. But, when we rejoin them some months later, it is Thompson in command, having ridden the tide as it turns against Mary (Brian Vernel is first rate as this slippery, self-serving arriviste). By the play’s end, Henshall’s Melville is a broken man, undone by the shocking realisation that he is, after all, capable of betraying his queen. Between them flits Agnes (Rona Morison), a fiercely Protestant serving woman, whose scorn for Catholic Mary gives way to horror as she watches the two men argue over what happened to the queen’s body.
The play has much contemporary resonance: the question of how Scotland defines its political future; the backroom deals in the corridors of power; and, above all, the grim spectacle of two men dissecting a woman’s behaviour as “proof” of whether consent was given. It’s an intelligent, incisive play. But it’s also dense and very dialogue-heavy and Roxana Silbert’s muted, often static production becomes almost becalmed in places. Thoughtful rather than thrilling.
To November 26, hampsteadtheatre.com
Much Ado About Nothing
Theatre Royal Stratford East, London
Men crowing over the virtue of a woman is also the unedifying spectacle at the centre of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. This is a romcom with a dark heart: the shaming of Hero at her wedding by credulous men who believe a villain over a woman veers close to the tragedy of Othello before resolving with a more-or-less happy ending.
In Robert Hastie’s production (first seen at Sheffield Crucible), that shocking moment becomes even more upsetting, as in this staging Hero is deaf. Watching Claire Wetherall’s touching Hero learn through British Sign Language what the men are saying about her only adds to the awfulness of the scene. It’s one of many intelligent and insightful moments in this co-production between Sheffield Theatres and Ramps on the Moon (a company committed to putting deaf and disabled artists at the centre of its work). And it’s an example of the way inclusivity can be artistically expansive: integrated into the action, signing and description often deepen the meaning.
Elsewhere this is an upbeat, warm-hearted, welcoming production, that begins with the cast introducing their characters and rolls forward with many deft comic touches. Guy Rhys’s Benedick learns of Beatrice’s affection for him as he pretends to be a masseur, responding to key revelations with over-emphatic pummelling; Dan Parr’s playboy Don Pedro is excruciatingly funny as he tries to retreat gracefully from an ill-judged proposal to Beatrice.
What the production doesn’t do is find a social context that makes sense of the plot (unlike Lucy Bailey’s recent Globe production, set in a war-torn, deeply conservative 1940s Italy). Without that, the play loses a fair deal of its shape and bite: we don’t feel, for instance, the battle-forged bond between the men that helps drive the deception. But it’s packed with witty performances, and at its heart are Rhys and Daneka Etchells, excellent as Benedick and Beatrice. Both suggest that beneath their breezy banter lies a wealth of buried hurt; when they get together, following Hero’s humiliation, they bring a quiet emotional intensity to the moment that has the audience leaning forward in concern.
To November 5, stratfordeast.com