Theatre, being an ephemeral art form, is often lost the minute we leave the auditorium. The things we keep in our memories are images, moments, rather than a whole production stamped brand-like onto our memory. I remember the first time I ever went to the theatre; Grease at the Liverpool Empire when I was 9. I remember the band being revealed behind a screen at the end, the illusion being snapped. I remember the tank smashing through the side of the stage in War Horse, then realising it wasn’t a tank, it was two caterpillar tracks held by puppeteers – but it was still terrifying. I remember seeing Sizwe Bansi is Dead in the tiny studio space at the Liverpool Playhouse and realising I could hear the actor talk; he wasn’t shouting to the balcony, he was looking at me and I could hear him talk.
I remember the way Maxine Peake’s Hamlet turned to look at his father. I remember the way the packed house laughed at the “up towards Southport” joke in Educating Rita. I remember the roars at the end of Imogen as the Globe shook with Skepta. I remember the moth in the second scene of Unreachable on press night. I remember the last 10 minutes of Hedda Gabler, and the tomato juice. I remember the funeral oration in Roman Tragedies.
The only thing I remember all of, the only play where I can recall every scene exactly as it was, virtually every intonation, is People, Places and Things.
As I’ve written about before, I moved to London for uni in September 2015, and the National Theatre was on my list of places to visit. I’d heard about a play in the Dorfman called ‘People, Places and Things,’ and in my naïveté, I decided I’d get tickets (it was sold out.) There was (is) this thing called Friday Rush so I thought I’d give it a go – in the last week of its run at the NT. By sheer dumb luck I ended up with cheap front row tickets to see one of the final performances, still utterly clueless as to what it was about, who was in it, and who’d written or directed it.
So, I rock up to the Nash on some random Thursday night, looking forward to it, but not knowing what it was I was going to the theatre for exactly; I think before this point I went on instinct, on a need for the liveness of it, but scratching for something underneath. I was getting there, things like Hamlet, Sizwe Bansi and Constellations had switched me on to different ideas.
And suddenly, Denise Gough is sat on a chair a couple of feet away from me, swaying slightly, eyes bulging. I now know she was Lucy playing Sarah playing Emma playing Nina, but in that first moment all I could see was a woman on the verge, someone I recognised, trying so desperately to hold it together – for everyone’s sake. There seemed to be nothing between her and the character, and nothing between the character and the audience (specifically, me.) This made it feel incredibly dangerous, like there was something at stake. The actress and character were so exposed that there was the very real possibility that something might go wrong.
And then play began to unfurl itself; the story of a woman attempting to rid herself of her sickness, her addiction. We witness her experience at rehab, the check-in and the humiliation of confession, the medical procedures, the infuriating reality of thinking yourself the smartest person in the room, and the inability to give yourself over to an ideology so removed from your understanding of the world. The play itself is a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned; it manages to interweave politics and character, a critique of neo-liberalism, the way it treats perspective as a form, balancing and arguing philosophy and religion – and embodying this in Emma, a complete howl of a character.
And Gough was unforgettable. So much has been said and written about it that I sort of feel I have nothing ese to add, though I was particularly enamoured with the wit she played it with, the idea that there was a big joke at the centre of her narrative, which of course made the end so upsetting. My favourite moment, and the one that still gives me chills to think about, is Emma’s monologue at the end of the first act. “We could just go for one drink” she screamed at the audience, into the dark. She was feral. She was terrifying. When I saw it in the West End six months later, I think Gough had a cold. I distinctly remember her blowing her nose, then throwing away her tissue before she launched into this final tirade. Nothing was going to stop her from making that speech – the character or the actress. I remind myself periodically how lucky I am to have seen her play it twice.
But to call it a feat of acting seems disingenuous; it was as if there was no act. As someone who has witnessed the effects of addiction, I saw no glamour in Emma. No pretence. There was nothing attractive about a sickness that consumes your existence and can destroy every single one of your relationships. The play sought only to contextualise Emma’s behaviour, not justify it.
Jeremy Herrin’s production, with Bunny Christie’s set emphasised the clinical, the coldness and the isolation of the clinic, allowing the visceral nature of Gough’s performance to control the space (I should say the rest of the company were also excellent. The scene where the tell their stories to the group in a sort of childlike round spoke more about addiction than many full-length plays.) The immediacy wasn’t entirely to do with Gough, but most of it was. The space acted not only as Emma’s exterior landscape, but as her interior landscape. We see what she sees, the blackouts, the double vision, and the sheer bloody terror at being alone, and sick. It was scarier than any horror movie I’ve ever seen.
That penultimate scene. It’s the single most upsetting thing I’ve ever seen on a stage; Emma (which we now know isn’t her real name, only her stage one) is having the conversation with her parents that she’d practiced having in the clinic, explaining that she’s going to stay sober. Her family – her mum – are more resistant than she was hoping. Her mum is indifferent; she sees only failure in her. She tells one notably upsetting anecdote, where Emma broke her fingers while hammered, and thus she no longer plays the piano like she used to. But it’s the moment she calls Emma ‘Lucy’ that got under my skin. It’s when we realise that Emma/Sarah/Lucy is still unable to reveal herself totally. It’s when that hope we had for her when she graduated is pulled from under us.
At the National, the line got a laugh. I don’t know if it was uncomfortable laughter, or hopeless laughter, but it felt like people were laughing at Emma (And yet in the West End, the same line was met with a palpable silence.) I was incensed. How dare they. I had become so invested in the play I was angry for her, and with her – never before, and never since, had I been so with a character and their narrative. I think it’s because I understood everyone in the scene at a profound way; by being with Emma every instant, but also having a very real sense of what that family was feeling – Barbara Marten and Kevin McMonagle playing the parents with an abnormally brilliant depth for so little stage time.
It’s very hard to render me speechless. Yet I walked back along the South Bank that night in utter silence, basically trying very hard not to break out in floods of tears. I remember my flatmates were about to start watching The Omen when I got back, and so I sat through the whole film, still thinking about the play, still haunted by Emma.
I’ve still no idea what The Omen is about. I’m still haunted by Emma.
I’ve been chasing the next People, Places and Things for 18 months now, which I know is a pointless task. I’m not after another play about addiction, or even another barnstorming performance. I’m after the next play that thrills me, excites me, motivates me, and devastates me the way this did.
With it lingering somewhere at the back of my skull for over a year, I concluded People, Places and Things is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen on a stage because it is single most honest thing I’ve ever seen on a stage. Not to say theatre must be honest to be brilliant, but this one hit me like a punch in the gut and a lightning strike to the brain. I’ll be thinking about it forever. And I’m very glad I did the Friday Rush that week.
Photo by Johan Persson.