[Review:] COLLAPSIBLE, Bush Theatre, London.
Written by Margaret Perry and directed by Thomas Martin, Collapsible presents a narrative of postmodern solipsism, a reflection on the self and one’s identity in an age dominated by crisis, destruction, instability and a lack of hope, compassion and sociability. It follows an unemployed Essie (Breffni Holahan) who struggles to find not only a job but herself. Dissociated and overwhelmed by the world, Essie observes the seemingly concrete identities of others and questions the characteristics of her own, haunted by what others may think of her and by actions of the past that no longer seem her own, trying and failing to find her place.
This dramatic text has a great premise. It is relevant and topical and speaks poignantly to widespread intersubjective concerns about one’s loss of self and one’s responsibility towards and agency within the external world. Its writing has a poetic and visceral quality to it, tackling real human issues with emotion and feeling. This is most successful. One other thing the text is particularly good at is demonstrating setting without too many irksome direct references. The information we receive is just enough to capture location and relationship, and this is most effective.
However, we are given very little to distinguish the character of Essie; it is more in Holahan’s portrayal of her that character is conveyed. This is quite an issue. For a play that revolves around lack [or loss] of identity, we need to feel some sort of compromise of identity. Instead, from the very beginning of the play, Essie’s profile remains dilute, and the degradation of any humanness simply quickens, worsens. Essie’s character always feels airy and vapid, and we only really get to understand her through the information on her that we receive from other characters and by the feelings that she depicts. This makes her seem as though a vessel of fleeting emotions and behaviours rather than a fixed person who is experiencing these. A sense of hollowness in Essie’s character is certainly desirable but should develop gradually throughout the text; it should not be immediate; otherwise, there is nothing substantial to follow, and the text remains somewhat shallow, repetitive and monotonous. I must admit that this same effect is true of Holahan’s characterisation as well.
Before moving on to such characterisation, I shall clarify that both the text and Holahan’s performance are excellent, but there could be a more refined degradation into Essie’s lack of self, and slightly more variation in Holahan’s portrayal. This is my only main issue.
Holahan’s portrayal sees Essie as inhuman, demented and intense, wide-eyed and staring into the audience, adopting at times uncomfortable, contorted positions. Initially, this is most consuming and powerful, but it soon becomes highly superficial, complicating our reading of Essie as a person with logical/realistic emotional processes and susceptibility. Along with the poeticism of the text, Essie becomes dehumanised through Holahan’s portrayal, and so we lose the grit and rawness beneath the story, its humanity. This is most problematic for the final moments of the play where Derek makes an appearance, and we are forced to consider Essie as real, as human, as a tangible person.
All of this being said, Holahan’s portrayal is captivating throughout. Her comedic timing is superb, complementing well the humour within the text, and her characterisation is continuous, coherent and compelling. Holahan distinguishes between her characters most seamlessly and in a manner I find most refreshing and almost exemplary. Rather than turning from side to side or changing tone or voice completely, assuming drastically different positions, etc., Holahan simply runs through the dialogue, changing only her expression and, much less dramatically, her posture and physicality. For the majority of her performance, this works incredibly well and guides us through the text in a fluid fashion. There are times, however, where such distinctions are lacking and character changes are difficult to read, but this is rare. Holahan performs with tireless energy and vitality. With the nature of the set demanding highly restricted movement, Holahan retains animation and variation in her performance. Director Thomas Martin has certainly considered physicality and its communications very cleverly, without inviting too much movement, which would seem unnatural and robotic.
This brings me on to set (designed by Alison Neighbour). The set for this performance is truly beautiful, comprising a ground of fine aggregate and dirt through which pierce three tall metal beams, one of which supports a small ‘concrete’ platform for Holahan to sit on. Whilst I do enjoy this set design, I do not think it is the best suited for this performance. I understand that this is meant to represent a [de]construction site, one seeming disused, drab and unworkable, and that this is intended to be symbolic of the de-/re-/construction of Essie’s identity and/or the hopeless moribundity of the world itself which Essie inhabits. yet this is a very literal symbolism of a mere theme that does not evoke the personality of the text. When Derek later enters the stage, further complications arise. This is a moment where the audience is intended to be conscious of the real world, to see Derek and Essie as real people having a real — and peculiar — interaction that extends past the confusions of events in Essie’s head. This is the first and only time that we get a glimpse into the world beyond Essie’s understanding of it, or lack thereof, and so it feels erroneous for this set, which the actor playing Derek enters into and stands upon, to be so overly fictive and otherworldly. One feature I do really enjoy, though, and feel worthy of a mention is the small collection of dust placed on top of the platform. This crumbles now and again, whenever Holahan moves, to form a fine free-falling mist, evoking throughout that sense of falling apart.
Lighting (designed by Alex Fernandes) is a very strong element of this performance, complementing and informing us of event and narrative extremely well. Whilst I do not favour this final scene between Derek and Essie, I must mention that lighting has a very particular and fruitful role within it. An intense and blinding light is shone into the audience, and when the stage is lit once more, along with the house itself, Derek has stood up from amongst the spectators. This is a very simple yet highly effective way of defictionalising the stage, drawing our attention to ourselves and the world beyond the play i.e. the world outside of Essie’s head. Lighting has a similar storytelling role in other places during the performance, one example of this being shortly before this final scene, when Holahan stands up upon the platform, her delivery becoming sharper and more urgent. In this moment, the lights fade until a simple orange wash illuminates her from behind as a silhouette before a complete blackout takes the stage. This really conveys that sense of disappearance, of the evanescence of identity and self and of one’s direct relationship to the world.
Sound (designed by Jon McLeod) is used minimally in this performance, mostly to determine scene changes. Here, a sound similar to that of a stone falling into water is played, usually combined with a leg movement from Holahan as though she is about to step off the platform as she delivers her line, interrupted, ‘Feet firmly on the... [ground]’. This is a motif used throughout the play and one which I find to be rather needless, robotic and ineffective in its awkward referentiality to set. It does, however, add slight structure, mood and texture to the performance.
To conclude, this remains a very evocative, poignant and visceral performance. It is both hard-hitting and alleviating, humorous and serious, poetic and raw. However, with the poeticism of the text, Holahan’s dehumanising portrayal, the overly fictionalising set, etc., the extent of the play remains entirely theatrical, reducing significance and meaning and, rather ironically, impact. This is a very articulate and refined piece of theatre, but slight alterations need to be made in order to really let the heart, richness and depth of the text shine through.