This review will consider Mites, a play written by James Mannion and directed by Marcus Marsh, currently performing at Tristan Bates Theatre (located in The Actor’s Centre) until 26 October.
Sadly, I must start this review by saying that I was extremely disappointed by this performance. It had such great personal appeal which the overture reinforced…and then the first scene started.
I’ll start with the overture. The audience walk in on a coughing woman, Ruth (Claire Marie Hall), slumped over a table, tissue in hand, in a smoky, dirty white room. Everything is stained black, and choking Ruth makes feeble efforts to spring clean — one could really get a sense of the illness and filth. And having all this through a surreal lens with music designed by Elliot Lampitt approximating that of an art gallery of sorts or a cheerful sitcom, makes for a most off-putting and paradoxical experience, in the best way possible, deliberately confusing form and content for [successful] dramatic effect.
When Ken (George Howard) enters, however, we get our first true glimpse of Marie Hall's acting. Unfortunately, I must say it was rather poor…I completely understand the melodramatic, absurdist and unnatural acting style that was attempted through the writing of this dramatic text, yet Marie Hall remained either much too extreme or much too mild in her characterisation. It was less a problem of energy, for that was definitely not an issue, but more an issue with mood and delivery combined. Marie Hall’s rather whiny characterisation did not change a bit between her characters, and unless she was overtly crying her eyes out or running erratically around the room, it was difficult to find any real, raw or texturised emotion in her, nor, most importantly, did she leave enough time for her lines to breathe, especially when delivering suggestive or mysterious remarks and asides — most notably about her late husband, Kenneth.
Howard’s acting abilities suffered from a similar ill but not so blatantly. He is the most transformative of the cast, that is sure, assuming the different roles of Ken, the Doctor, and whom I shall call the "Mite Boy", yet there seems to be little dynamism in his performance. I would have liked to see a larger emotional range, and for his shifts from doting and placid as “Kenneth” to frustrated and volatile as “Ken” to be more extreme. Meanwhile, Richard Henderson’s acting style suited the learned, snooty and spiteful character of Bartholomew very well, but, yet again, was lacking range and versatility — the weakest, I thought, of the cast, regarding this.
Perhaps this unchangingness was a conscious, directorial decision, given the conclusion of the play revealing that these characters each elaborate upon three true and pre-existing characters — more on that later — yet, if this is the case, this would not be, and was not, effective in the slightest, for it causes a sense of stasis and one-note plot. This is obviously not the desired effect for something which aims to be so overridden with plot twists and deliberate inconsistencies with covert significances. More specifically, this would also be inconsistent with the characters of the mites and Bartholomew, as these are nothing but pure figments of Ruth’s imagination.
I believe that this vast stagnancy that permeates this play is more the fault of the writing than anything else, however. It is utterly, mind-numbingly repetitive, not just in its wider content and themes that encircle and reflect themselves incessantly but even within a large number of scenes that see characters repeating patterns of behaviour and speech. Again, if this was decisive, this is an extremely fallible idea. Subtlety is key.
I have seen Mannion’s work before and thought quite highly of it. He is able to capture very intricate and textured aspects of character, making strong, confident and, above all, convincing profiles. The characters in this play, on the other hand, were so static and repetitive that this could not be the case here. Delicate and fine detailing is missing and replaced for rudimentary humour and unnecessary featurettes. Perhaps this was decisive, and Mannion wanted to focus more on the structure of the play, its plot and the [not-so-]big reveal. Again, this is undesirable, as one would want to make these realities, however ephemeral or longevous, rich and overflowing with realism, to make these shifts all the more confusing.
This relationship, or lack thereof, with detail makes for certain irregularities in this dramatic text, one example being the chemicals used by Ken as an exterminator. If this is all in the mind of Ruth, would she be able to think of these chemicals? Perhaps she was exposed to some similar names in hospital, and these are feeding into her visions, yet if this is the case, it is not conveyed.
This lack of detail affected not only the characters, their interactions and the structure of the performance, but most importantly the main [recurrent] themes. I found those of misogyny, domestic violence and so-called resulting mental illness in this performance to be particularly lazy. Whilst I understand that these themes were reconfigurations of the true reality that Ruth was, in fact, living, it is not the idea of articulating this reality in this multifaceted and multifarious way that is problematic for me; instead, it is the way in which these themes are articulated and the fact that these themes so neutrally and effortlessly become the very fabric of the play. There was nothing particularly unique, thought-provoking, shocking or terrifying about this abuse. Rather, it was quite an insipid, dilute and, above all, stereotypical relation of abuse. The same structure for scenes of this nature repeated itself over and over again: woman serves dinner; man belittles woman for no reason; man accuses woman of being a “slut”; woman gathers confidence to leave. It was easy to assume, before knowing for sure, that this was the work of a male writer, unseasoned, at least, in this style, these themes and these thematics.
As for the theme of mental illness, I was particularly disappointed that this became a means to a theatrical end, both to shock and to effortlessly tie loose ends together. Not only is it a bland, unimaginative and unoriginal route to make sense of all of this by blaming it on mental illness — and then, albeit less directly, on mental illness engendered by abuse — but it also perpetuates a very incongruous and disparaging social view of mental illness that the arts have concretised for much too long. This theme also has simply too little presence to sufficiently contextualise or justify its position within this performance, and that bears in mind the little doctor voices that call out to Ruth sporadically throughout the beginning/middle of the play. In other words, this is very simply a case of sloppy writing without enough stamina to produce a sufficiently climactic or wowing ending.
I believe that this play should have ended with one of the later scenes in which the mites gorge themselves upon Ruth. Both technically and rhythmically, this would have been a much stronger and more potent ending than the one we are actually offered.
Finally, in terms of technicalities and design, I found myself having mixed views. This surreality that I mentioned very early in this review, generated primarily by Lampitt's music, was afterwards generated solely by content and structure, not by any characters or traits, other than the mites and cat. This rendered the music rather pointless, being disconnected stylistically with the dramatic text. That being said, music was composed very well, sufficiently melodic and effectively repetitive.
Set (designed by Cecilia Trono) was utterly wonderful. As I detailed in the beginning, an engrossing picture of grime and filth. Yet, this set was also very dynamic. Despite its simplicity in getting there, the set made for a good and smooth shift between locations. Costume (also designed by Trono) was OK but could have been more diverse. Again, perhaps the same costume was recycled in different styles to suggest all characters were the same, but this conflicts with Ken actually being a dog…
Lighting (Daniel Spreadborough) was good for this performance, actually, however simplistic, yet its timing, when paired with transitions, was ridiculous. In fact, I think these were one of the worst, roughest and most unprofessional transitions I have seen. Yet, this was more the fault of the actors, I believe, moving extremely slowly during transitions and remaining on stage at lights-up to — even more slowly, now that they are visible — remove props.
This is definitely not a psychological thriller, though basic genre categorisations would have it so; it is a watered-down surrealisation of cliched and second-hand social concepts…with mites? I was sad to find that the mites featured so little in this performance. I think the idea of decadence, filth, and surviving off of very little, all hidden under an absurd and estranging comedy is very engrossing and would be pertinent to the material of this play if this material was better articulated and far more developed. It was a shame to only hear of or see these mites just a mere few times, to have them used as odd featurettes rather than an embodiment of sorts or recurrent omen or figure, or an entire theme unto itself.
In fact, I do think that there were quite a few features of this performance that, alone, were successful and engaging, most notably those comedic moments which overstretch our imaginations and expose items as mere facades, such as the revelation that Bartholomew was not, in fact, a cat but a long-hiding Kenneth. I would urge Mannion to consider writing more, similar surrealist comedy, as opposed to “thrillers”, and to work more with the grotesque and the absurd. These areas are a strong-point for the style and level of writing demonstrated in this play alone, but I would stay away from the hard-hitting and the provocative unless with a much, much profounder and erudite eye.