This review will consider Abigail, a play written by Stephen Gillard (also the play’s director) and Laura Turner. It is currently being performed at The Space, presented by Fury Theatre.
Aesthetically, this is a rather sleek and mostly accurate performance, beyond the lack of layers or headwear in costume or the erroneous inclusion of Mrs Constance’s (Sophie Kamal) scarf, for example. Costume designs themselves, despite these historical inaccuracies, are detailed and imaginative, altogether cohesive and well-tailored. Theatrical properties are superb, and their abundance is an effective decision to embellish what would otherwise be a sizeable and thus distinctly empty and lifeless playing area. The topography of this stage is well-conceived, and, despite this being such a sizeable stage, actors and their movements are spread well across it. Visually, this is a most balanced and creative performance, though it is undeniable that aesthetic considerations have mostly favoured Upstage areas, leaving those Downstage to feel rather disjointed visually, thematically and stylistically.
On a similar note, simultaneous scenes are well-conceived and add humour and dimensionality to this performance, providing details and information about the story and the characters without consuming too much valuable stage time. I particularly enjoy the nonchalant yet self-mocking manner in which the first sexual sequence is handled with Milly’s character (Sarah Isbell) and the figure of the “Everyman” played by Nathan Haymer-Bates. This sequence allows for us to enjoy Milly’s exploitation, though we have yet to discover that this is, indeed, a form of exploitation and not a service she provides willingly and of her own accord. This further intensifies our compassion and feeling, through our guilt, when we later find what we ourselves have enjoyed to be all the more dirty, immoral and uncomfortable. However, despite the fact that dialogue is kept rather deliberately weak and ignorable in these simultaneous scenes, the secondary action is oftentimes too distracting and hence to some degree subtractive from the play’s momentum and profundity. This is especially the case when we are offered only needless representations of characters entering rooms only to perform minimal actions, such as lying down upon the bed, and exit very soon afterwards. Nevertheless, these humorous sequences successfully complement our reading, progress the narrative and plot, and provide needed respite from the dark and the ugly. I would just recommend more of these in the second act, as their sudden omission calls for stylistic inconsistency: the first act is far more comedic than the painful, dramatic second.
Characters in this performance, if perhaps somewhat caricatural and unidimensional and hence also superficial, are well defined and logically conceived. Actors, overall, represent these profiles well, too. However, this performance suffers from a distinct and non-negligible lack of naturalism. Unless specific background movements have been choreographed and directed, it seems that the majority of the performers struggle to find some natural activities with which preoccupy themselves. Definite exceptions to this are Isbell and Lucy Sheree Cooper (playing Mercy) who remain engaged in and expressive and responsive towards the onstage action in which they are not necessarily directly included. We constantly see Milly eavesdropping on conversations or Cooper’s guilty and forlorn expressions or naïve smile as she gawps on at Abigail’s (Laura Turner) various actions. This constant busyness and activity is commendable. However, and this is more of a directorial issue, it is definitely repetitive to have Milly, for instance, always eavesdropping whilst cleaning the same glasses from the same crate in the same exact position as she always has been. Perhaps more varied activities — sweeping, dusting, washing, etc. — could be conceived for these moments.
An editorial issue as well as one specific to the actors, but such repetitivity persists amongst the quieter or more dialogue-heavy scenes. For example, we see Turner in over half of her one-to-one scenes Downstage Right, holding her hands together at her pelvis, swaying side to side flirtily, which is always followed by a chastising, suggestive or passive remark and a snooty turn of the head, then a turn of the body to face her interlocutor, either with derision and confrontation or mesmerisation. Again, an issue with the text that rather unimaginatively forces Abigail into these far-too-similar and mostly inconsequential contexts regularly throughout the performance, Turner’s performance is enabled to seem robotic and unidimensional in this manner. Hence, much more variation is needed in these scenes.
On to acting specifically. Perhaps due to initial nervousness, Isbell’s pacing, to begin with, is far too quick and compromises what is otherwise a most successful portrayal. However, this certainly improves as the play goes on. She is otherwise wonderfully expressive, and clear on her character’s intentions. After the initial hiccups, her vocal delivery is superb. Cooper is an excellent performer, pairable with Isbell as the strongest of the cast. She has an excellent grip on her characterisation, from vocal to physical delivery. A completely faultless performer, demonstrating great emotional range and awareness of character development. Articulating with her entire body, always engaged in and aware of the rest of the action on stage, Isbell’s performance is exemplary. Perhaps slightly too caricatural in places, but this is to be expected with a caricature-heavy performance of this nature.
Both Turner and James Green (playing Jack) overenunciate throughout the entire performance, their speech becoming too rehearsed and deliberate. This is particularly a problem for Turner’s character who regularly [though perhaps not regularly enough for the written text to define her particular idiolect] speaks in contractions: “ain’t”, “’em [them]”, etc. In fact, regarding speech, all cast members fail to provide us with an accent representative of Salem, providing us with a distinctly English accent, instead, and this is most destructive of illusion. Sticking with Turner specifically, this actress demonstrates a great emotional range, is expressive, has great vocal delivery and understands her character’s motivations and objectives, but only when delivering her character’s lines — with a few notable exceptions, such as in her scenes with Sophie Jane Corner (Solvi). Also a trait of Green’s and, most conspicuously, Solvi’s, Turner tends to remain inexpressive whilst other actors are interacting with her or other cast members still. This is another example of how naturalism is omitted. I must say, however, that Turner has excellent manual expression. It is common for actors to forget about or to have no idea what to do with their hands, and Turner masters this problem well — perhaps, in fact, the best I have seen in a while.
Whilst Green is clearly aware of his character’s intentions, is adequately emotive. Green’s physicality and tone of voice do not notably change throughout the entire performance. He aims to be soothing and calm, clearly to juxtapose his abusive and evil nature, all in order to come across as even more manipulative and malicious in his impassibility. This is a far too unrealistic and formalised representation, and also too stereotypical, causing his overall profile to lack depth and naturalism. I would recommend considerably more tonal variation as well as more corporeal expressivity. We should have no inclination that this man is the dark and exploitative character that he is; he should feel natural, normal, romantic and soft as well as feeling and passible, just like any other good-doing character that we ourselves can bond with and relate to. This would ultimately intensify our disgust, discomfort and shame when we realise who he truly is. Currently, his presentation feels too deliberate and, especially with the [needless, inconsequential and clichéd] suggestion made by The Marshall (also Haynes-Bates) that he is, indeed, an abusive and deceitful man, foreshadowing is too extreme, minimising the final impact of this revelation. At the moment, Green limits his expressivity to slow tilts of the head when attempting to woo or coerce the female characters. He does, however, perform his stage slaps very well, indeed.
On the topic of Green’s effective stage slaps, the same cannot be said for the portrayal of his initial ‘death’. A weak forward thrust from Turner of the candleholder towards his head, failing to make contact and lacking any palpable impetus, and suddenly he’s on the floor, dead. Similarly, though Isbell does execute her part in this well, after she ‘stabs’ Green, he simply falls to the ground, silent, dead. When such extreme scenes lack realistic quality, their embedded awkward histrionics are further intensified. Naturalism in this way needs to be urgently readdressed. Other physical interactions between the characters, however, from Isbell’s sexual scenelets [with intimacy coordination excellently handled by Haley Muraleedharan, overall] to the dancing scene, are executed very well.
When I compare Kamal’s loud, bold and sometimes melodramatic caricaturisation against Haymer-Bates’s total lack of corporeal and vocal expressivity, a stylistic inconsistency arises and, of course, we lose sight of naturalism even further. Kamal has a great command over her character’s mannerisms and facial expressions but struggles consistently to deliver her lines with the correct intonation, emphasising the wrong words or misinterpreting her line altogether. However, she has excellent stage presence and vigour, certainly vitalising her character. As for Haymer-Bates, despite the simplicity of his roles in this performance, this actor remains completely devoid of articulacy and expression, stiffly walking across the stage with a firm, blank face and an unchanging tone of voice. I would personally recast his characters, as they remain completely illegible and devoid of personality. This is perhaps more excusable for his portrayal of the Everyman, but not for The Marshall. His attention to detail is certainly lacking, and one further example of this is during Mercy’s first rape, where he makes no gesture at all that his trousers have been undone, despite Mercy’s assistance in lifting her skirt. Whilst on this topic, this is an excellent portrayal from Mercy here, but I would recommend the creatives not be scared to dedicate more time to this scene, especially given that this is the most poignant and raw in typifying the themes of and presentations in the dramatic text. Sensationalism ought to be avoided, of course, but slower pacing, intenser physicality and more stage time would make this scene all the more harrowing, uncomfortable and visceral, and hence allow for more psychological results amongst audience members. I would recommend the fleetingness of this scene be reconsidered.
Finally, Corner. I should first clarify here that Corner meets the director’s conspicuous sensationalist expectations. She is bold, committed and invigorated, aware of her objectives. She has wonderful vocal delivery and an adequate command of her physicality. Her pacing is also very good. Facial expression could be improved, though. However, it is the very concept of her character itself that I find irksome, unhelpful, incongruous and subtractive, and this brings me on to the text itself and its representation of Solvi and its exploration of ‘witches’ [or lack thereof] in general.
Solvi is not a witch, only condemned and almost killed as a witch due to Abigail’s internalised homophobia that consumes her after their sexual/romantic relations and causes her to denounce her. So, why is she chanting, singing and coaxing Abigail to lust? She is not dead, as she explains several times towards the end of the play [as though Abigail has some way of knowing this, despite it happening after she ran away], yet explicitly communicates that she is dead in her first appearances, then continuing to haunt Abigail as though a ghost. I do understand that she is a representation of Abigail’s fears, pains and memories, a symbol of herself, of their love, and I do understand the mixed emotions Abigail experiences when thinking about her. However, her representation is far too volatile, her character showing no coherent chronology or structure: in one appearance, she is loving, sweet; in another, a silent, understated observer; in another, rampaging, violent, physical. This is a mere sensationalist representation, aiming to toy with the audience’s emotions, to shock them, to make them feel uneasy and cautious, untrusting and scared, but the results can only be disappointing.
Given that the witch trials are only referenced as punishment for the female characters’ homosexuality in this text yet employed distinctly in official descriptions of this performance, I cannot help but feel that the theme of witches and their histories are merely being instrumentalised by the creatives here to attract larger audiences to a performance that, in fact, has nothing to do witches at all. Abigail’s religiousness and her quest for God’s love over Solvi’s sinful temptations are explicit in and essential to the beginning of this performance, yet forgotten immediately after. In fact, I cannot recall a single allusion or reference to Christianity again throughout the entire performance, or to religion and religious practices and thought in general, for that matter. The feminist and anti-patriarchal sisterhood implicit in witching is cleverly integrated into this text, admittedly, but this is a stretch and feels accidental or as though an afterthought. Moreover, that Milly should also be homosexual, and that Abigail should know this without any reason or evidence to believe so, is most questionable. This budding relationship between Milly and Abigail is most underplayed, seeming also as though an awkward afterthought to quickly add a sense of solidarity, passion and connection between the characters before the tumultuous ending. The same can be said of Mrs Constance’s emotional outpouring upon the discovery of Jack’s lifeless body. An entire monologue is dedicated to her character, yet we have had no reason to care for her perspective or to consider her emotions and psychology — once more, because she is a shallow caricature.
Despite its harrowing and profound themes, the text remains as distinctly superficial as its characters. One reason for this is the aforementioned sensationalist quality, exemplified by, amongst other things, the first act’s insistence upon all-too-familiar, needless and tiresome jump scares. Solvi’s ‘taunting’ Abigail is reducible at times to mere jibes and insults, but, most importantly, we have the inclusion of metatheatrical techniques, namely direct eye contact with the audience. As we first enter the house, we are confronted with the image of a demented-looking Corner [again a questionable depiction of someone who is not a witch, not evil, not crazy but merely passionate, in love, scared and hurt], sat far Downstage Center, gazing into the eyes of every audience member she can, her head lowered and titled. In her subsequent appearances, Corner offers us ‘intimidating’ glances and stares, often making efforts to break eye contact with Abigail to do this, despite sitting on top of her or stood right before her. There is not a single other element of this performance that employs metatheatrical techniques in this way, meaning that this confrontational indirect audience interaction type remains stylistically inconsistent with the rest of the performance, forcing us not deeper into the text but into a distinct temporospatial awareness: we become aware of ourselves, of the mechanics of theatre, of the space and the Other as well as our relationship to all of these. We become removed from the performance, aware of what we are ‘supposed’ to feel but comfortable and indifferent in the knowledge that this remains an enclosed performance where direct interaction will never force itself upon us.
However, on the night I saw this performance [and only this night, I hope], it did. Kamal dropped a coin beneath the chairs of two audience members and interacted with them immediately, demanding they give it back. Whilst she handled this ‘impressively’, still in character, failure to completely ignore the projectile prop and the audience members’ disturbance meant that the illusion of the world of the play had been completely destroyed. If such an incident should occur again in the future, the creatives must ensure they do not address it at all, for then, the incident will remain an issue internalised and only momentarily addressed by the audience. As soon as the creatives address the audience, self-knowing artificiality is extremified, and the play loses all credibility, integrity and professionalism. Leaving the projectile prop communicates that such a ‘mishap’ is merely an endearing potential facet or by-product of experiencing live performance, and not something that went wrong.
Finally, some trivial notes. I mentioned jump scares above, and these are also accompanied by drastic and stylistically incongruous changes in lighting states, bringing me on to tech. Especially in the former part of this performance, tech fails to complement and facilitate the action on stage. Notably, volume is far too loud, though the music itself supplements the performance with its catchy and congruous motifs. Blackouts are never dark enough, except for during the transition after Mercy’s rape, revealing subtractive and disillusive transitional activity, and lighting cues do not coincide with the actors’ movements. For example, as soon as Corner sits back down to end the first scene of the play, she is back up again with the slow and untimely fading of her spot, with lights coming back up before she has even left the stage. Most peculiar here, however, is that Corner seemed to pre-empt this, not entirely committing to her seat, implying that this technical decision either was deliberate or has been commonly executed in performance hitherto. Neither should be deemed permissible.
Overall, I personally thoroughly enjoyed this performance, but my critical and personal judgements are different things. Most important to reflect upon is that the dramatic text feels as though it is at odds with itself, unsure about its style, its references, its context and its themes. It favours above total coherency and stylistic consistency the notion of thrilling and challenging an audience but fails to focus and particularise our critical attention sufficiently to do so. Its multiplicity in subject matter does not make it versatile and multifarious but convoluted and ill-communicative. It is easy to feel as though we have watched two very different plays, one about sex trafficking and manipulation, and the other about finding oneself and coming to terms with and practising one’s ‘dissident’ sexuality…and then there is the odd reference to witching. With this in mind alongside the items I have expressed above, I am brought to the rating below.
“An intriguing story but not yet fully fledged.”
Photography Credit: Richard Hall.