Beginning @ National Theatre: Time Makes You Bolder

I was looking forward to Beginning, don’t get me wrong. But when a play seems to come out of nowhere and sweep you away with its magic, that effect is heightened. You get drunk on it. As it was, I entered the Dorfman theatre and as that wall of party music that forms the pre-show hit me, I felt my mood lift. I was in such a good mood, but half-expecting it to be deflated the second the curtain (there was a curtain!) went up. When it looks like things are going well, I tend to doubt. It absolutely did not deflate. It lifted even further.

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God I loved it so much. It’s bloody brilliant craftsmanship, gorgeously done by everyone involved. It seems beautifully ‘classic.’ Not classic the way that some might describe a tweedy, mothballed suit, but classic in the way that an oak bookcase full of really good books will always look amazing.

A man and a woman are left alone at the end of a party; he’s been eyeing her up all night and she’s taken a shine to him too. They’ve both – ahem – ‘had a drop taken,’ but they’re both clearly excited at the prospect of being alone. They stand in awkward silence, half posed, each waiting for the other to talk. It’s often painfully awkward, the distance between the bodies on stage seems magnified; Danny, with his back to us over on the right trying to look bigger, and Laura, leaning on the doorframe in an attempt at sensuality.

And when they start to talk, as they must, they just can’t stop saying the wrong things. (Personal favourite, when Laura tells Danny to ‘man up’ and he promptly bursts into tears.) It’s Chekhovian in that sense of these people should not keep saying those things but the fact they do is just so hilarious – I genuinely don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard in a theatre. They talk in weird, awkward, half sentences and “what?”s and misunderstandings. It is, as Eldridge put it, “tortured, euphemistic language.” Neither can bring themselves to say exactly what it is they want, even supposedly empowered, forward Laura.

The play is a game of how much can these people stand of the other’s presence. Can they really stand that awkwardness? Can they stand that silence and the missteps and OH GOD when they just keep saying the wrong thing? It’s a play of so many endings that could but never quite materialise. Laura stands between Danny and the door physically, and the genius of Polly Findlay’s direction is you’re never entirely sure what is a conscious action and what is not. Is Laura really blocking Danny’s way? Or is it just the inevitable consequence of hosting a party? When Danny turns away from Laura and she tucks her hair behind her ears, is it conscious or utterly irrelevant?

It is a play where the politics of lifting a glass are important (sidenote; I got to hear Eldridge and Findlay talk about Beginning and it was wonderful and wow Polly Findlay’s such a great articulator of this stuff.) It’s a play where the detail is so. Damn. Important. Thinking about it now, I have no real idea which ideas were Eldridge’s, Findlay’s or the actors’. The work is completely seamless. Findlay referred to ‘The Eldridge Iceberg,’ the idea that the dialogue offers a glimpse at what the characters are attempting to conceal, and as that icebergs melts away over the evening, the huge depth of emotion that is under these characters becomes raw and exposed. Both these characters have vast capacities for emotion, in a way that I think is genuinely rare to see.

Playing these parts are Justine Mitchell (who is having a hell of a year, incidentally,) and Sam Troughton. They are both completely exquisite. There’s not a moment in either of their performances I wish was different. The way Mitchell’s Laura stares at the gold streamers for just a couple of seconds longer than you expect before she rips it down. The way Troughton swallows hard wile shaking out a binbag. The way Mitchell sits on a beanbag eating a fish-finger sandwich. The way Troughton cannot stay still on that couch. I could list them and list them – but I won’t, because you really should see it for yourself. Possibly their biggest achievement is in the balance of their performances; they never seek to outdo the other, but they’re constantly matching, daring themselves and then the other. You do feel like they could both go completely off script and you’d still have two human beings on stage trying to talk to each other.

It’s so lovely to simply enjoy yourself unreservedly at the theatre. I love feeling like my brain is going at 100mph, don’t get me wrong. I love being challenged, but it’s so wonderful to just be told a story when the storytelling is so good. And that’s not to say that Beginning isn’t intelligent, because it is. I think it speaks very eloquently about class, and age, and children and love and money and how frustratingly interconnected they can all be. It just chooses to wear its heart, not Wikipedia, on its sleeve.

It’s also beautifully designed; Fly Davis’ room is just exactly the room it should be, and is treated as such by the actors. It’s an alive space, it never feels like a set. To navigate this type of naturalism without falling into the holes that seem to define naturalism is a skill in itself, carried through from the writing to the directing and acting, into the design.

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A sizeable chunk of this play is completely devoid of dialogue. The longest stretch is eight(!) minutes but it’s often just a second too long to be comfortable. You sit in a permanent state of half-wince. The audience cannot really (with a few exceptions) agree on what to laugh at, it emerges in spikes and awkward, nervous cackles. You get the sense that for a lot of the audience, this is very close to the bone.

And it’s not a play that is overly optimistic. Hopeful, yes, and I think (SPOILER) when Danny and Laura finally kiss we desperately want them to make it work, (END SPOILER) but something dark creeps into the room someway through. I think it’s when Laura mentions how in the next year America will elect a female president. It’s only then the play plants itself in history, 2015, before the EU referendum and the election of Trump, and what feels like an era of incompetents doing jobs well beyond their capacities. Eldridge spoke about how he was very much “writing in the present tense” when he wrote it, but what seemed then an opportunity for the – loosely – progressive voice to finally assert itself seems instead a last hurrah for optimism. I can’t help but wonder if Laura and Danny’s relationship would disintegrate the way so much of politics has.

It was also interesting to see this play between two other, radically different two-handers. It exposed the form not solely as a method for experiment, but as a form for complete assurance and confidence. It struck me that it is an inherently dangerous thing to put two humans on stage and leave them there for 100 minutes; there’s no surface scene change to grab a glass of water, or to distract/wake up the audience. There’s no other actor to walk in and energise the piece. It is an act of complete trust, and faith. Which may be why when it works – and it very much works here – the results are soaring because you sense the elements of immense difficulty being navigated with total ease and confidence.

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Beginning doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it does lovingly craft a gorgeous-looking one out of the finest materials in the wheel-making industry, and it’s my favourite new play of the year so you should probably see it, okay?

 

Photo by John Persson.

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