[Review:] RETRIBUTION DAY (online).
Two minutes in, and the need for refinement is certainly palpable. Whilst somewhat clichéd, the dramatic text for Retribution Day certainly shows some potential but the current execution feels...sloppy, unskillful and dilute.
First, the written text itself. We are presented, essentially, a psychopath character type whose psychosis is based upon past emotional abuse from their lover. We are told this story simultaneously by Helen (Julie Martis) and David (Malcolm Jeffries) who both represent our main character. Here, we arrive at my first issue with concept. This dual representation is confounding at the very least. I can only imagine that this decision is to evoke that typical sense of duality of the mind — i.e. volatility, unstable personalities, etc. — that we see so much in related literature and media, one that remains rather stilted and damaging in generating stigmas and misconceptions surrounding mental illness. Otherwise, I have no idea why writer A G Anderson has convoluted the narrative in this way.
Helen also quotes her lover and tells us that her name is Donna; and David, that his name is Kevin. These elements are extremely ill-communicated and not in a way that generates a sense of intrigue wherein our main character remains nameless, faceless, mysterious; it is simply perplexing. The two 'characters', Helen and David — who I shall now refer to collectively as 'the killer' — recount the exact same story to us, yet the gender of their lovers alternates along with them, and here perishes the notion of duality of the mind.
Perhaps the intention was that the information we are given remain unreliable, contestable, unlikely. However, the effect is not so much an invocation of distrust but a recognition of sheer incoherence.
Suspense and tension are handled peculiarly in this performance, and this is notably not just an issue with writing but also with directing and video editing all together. The creatives have misused two distinct modes of generating suspense and tension, and this misuse persists to haunt this performance. One such mode is to present an array of images/happenings and to have pace quicken, characters interrupt one another, and our attention be split across various different items, all to generate a sense of climax via freneticism. This tension and suspense type is achieved by invoking a sense of anxiety in an audience, nay nervosity. The second mode is to, often implicitly, allude to or foreshadow something of great importance or sinister, to slow down pace, to have characters speak legato, uninterrupted in a serious or menacing manner. Here, suspense and tension is achieved by the audience’s apprehension, cautiousness and morbid curiosity. The creatives either consistently use these side by side, where, clearly, they ought to be employed separately and alone, or they do not allow the audience to settle into one or the other; the time allowed for either mode to germinate is improperly managed.
The storyline itself is, I must admit, rather commonplace. An infatuated lover turned victim of infidelity turned volatile psychopath is institutionalised, only to be released to seek revenge on their abuser in some disguise, and is now being hunted by the police. In itself, the story is not too original, and so there must be something extra, unique, poignant, strong, both to validate its worthiness of our attention and to concretise its unique and memorable identity. I cannot identify such a thing.
There seems to be a reliance upon extreme imagery in places, such as the rotting slice of ham the killer places in their open self-inflicted wound, and these items appear to be an attempt at this sought-after specialness. However, grotesqueness must be grounded by, what is felt in consideration of the world of the play we are presented to be, the logical and coherent. There are many far-fetched elements in this performance, and this slice of ham is one of them: that this would not have caused excruciating pain and have developed into sepsis, thereby compromising the killer’s ‘control’ of the situation, which is the whole point of this action, and that doctors would merely rely solely upon a patient's recount that previous nurses have examined the wound, a patient administered to a hospital specialising in mental health, is ridiculous and unbelievable. Somehow, no-one knows where this pungent smell is coming from, despite the fact that every doctor acknowledges it is coming from the wrist? And not one medical profession, after having deemed that the smell is coming from the wrist, actually examines the wrist? There are discontinuities here as well.
The theme of 'control' surfaces recurrently throughout, with the killer expressing an intense desire for control both over others, and over their environment and their own body and mind. Yet, we are presented no substantial and credible evidence that the killer has ever, indeed, gained this intensely desired control, and so this theme becomes rather moot. Again, evidence such as the ham incident is not credible enough to uphold this. Credibility is definitely severely lacking in this performance, and it is its biggest downfall, but this is not just a problem specific to the writing but to acting styles and deliveries as well.
Martis's performance is disappointing, I must admit. In delivering her lines, she demonstrates no awareness of intonation and rhythm, her speech patterns failing to emulate those natural to human conversational speech. Her movements are forced, unnatural, mechanical, and it becomes clear very early on in her portrayal that meaning will only be delivered to us through rehearsed activity. I shall give an example: in the beginning of the play, Martis looks around the room, expressionless and with no intensity whatsoever, sat upright, her hands on her legs — an unnatural and robotic, and therefore inhuman and unrealistic, comportment — and then states, "I don't think anyone has been in here since my last visit". The words I have underlined note our points of emphasis. Here, the meaning conveyed is that Helen would have expected someone to have 'been in here' and is disappointed that they have not been, with the emphasis placed on the negative 'don't'. However, this line should be delivered with the emphasis on the next word, 'think', and this word should be extended, rather like: "I don't thiink [...]" [Note: this extension should not be dramatic]. With the emphasis on the verb 'think', it is communicated that Helen is simply trying to deduce (i.e. think) if anyone has ‘been in here’, and this is rather the intention behind this line. We see moments like this consistently throughout, and these ought to have been identified and reworked by director Andrew Bruce-Lockhart.
Martis is not alone in delivering incorrect emphases, however; just before this example, for instance, Jeffries clearly delivers his line in the pre-emption that he will be cut off by Martis: "My little room of [do not disturb]", rising slightly in volume and elongating the emphasis word. Collectively, the two performers provide us with entirely different demeanours, mannerisms, idiolects, delivery speeds, tones, etc., making this aforementioned issue with dual representation all the more confounding and irritating. Sense of identity for the killer is compromised in this sense, but so is style.
Though both maintain a sense of sterility and calmness — again, [too] typical of the psychopath character type — Jeffries's movements, though apparently few, are particularly more fluid, slow and, significantly, more naturalistic, and this is in direct contrast with Martis's mechanical overexpressivity. The two styles juxtapose one another sorely. Notably, towards the end, when the killer demonstrates just how they shall lie to investigators, the shift we see in manner and expressivity is too insignificant with Martis and too extreme for Jeffries. Deliveries are unnatural but not sufficiently caricatural, either, whereby they would seem mocking of the investigators' gullibility. Together, in their lack of uniformity, the profiles we are presented plainly do not work.
On to Jeffries alone. Jeffries is a lot surer of his character intent and delivers his lines in a manner far more approximate to natural speech patterns. His characterisation is slightly more concrete, but his lack of movement makes for little visual appeal, though, notably, this is perhaps more of a directorial issue. His greatest area of struggle is not so much the delivery of his lines but that of the space in-between. Either he struggles to move coherently and credibly between the different emotions and states expressed consecutively, or he simply does not know how to physically navigate moments of silence or pause.
Finally, I shall comment on aesthetics and tech. I mentioned above that the set comprised a plethora of empty boxes, and this would have been a decent set design if they were indeed full and if attention had been given to suchlike details. It is an inelaborate set design, but this is fine; it works well with the static soliloquies and speed of delivery. Lighting works well to the same effect and is also successful in its unchanging simplicity. Music, however, composed and performed by Ricardo Fernandes, is faultless, demonstrating great versatility and awareness, and generating suspense splendidly. Clean and spirited compositions.
In summary, a lot of work has to be done on this performance, both in text and on stage. The story is notably coherent, overall, but ill-constructed narrative and far-fetched elements subtract from its integrity. The grotesque and the extreme should not be used merely to titillate but to progress, intensify and give style and voice to the story itself. Actors should take note to reconsider corporeal tension, intensity, intonation and intent, and there should either be uniformity in their characterisations or a deliberate, useful and distinct disharmony, one to showcase the various aspects of the singular mind of the killer.