This review considers The Duration, a play written by Bruce Graham, directed by Jelena Budimir and staged at the Omnibus Theatre.
I would like to start by commending the cast on their marvellous acting, particularly Florence Roberts (playing Emma) and Sarah Finigan (playing Audrey). All actors demonstrated excellent credibility, conviction and vitality and portrayed characters with palpable naturalism. Energy was also kept well and constant. My only strong recommendation would be to pay more attention to moments of silence, particularly where one character is listening and reacting to another character speaking. These reactions were oftentimes slightly too dramatic and rehearsed, and, other times, almost non-existent.
Naturalism was even present in the set (designed by Sarah Jane Booth) as well, with the fully stocked cupboards, the hot steam rising from the teas, the complete newspapers, the regularly emptied cat food bowls, and more. Attention to detail certainly was not amiss in this performance, then. Whilst I believe that a few more were needed, just for that extraneous amount of distinction, costume (also designed by Booth) changes also added well to this sense of naturalism. Needless to elucidate, these elements were well conceived and well designed, making the world of the play all the more precise, attractive and, most importantly, illusory.
The lack of naturalism that we must ignore in imagining that a cat is present on stage does require a certain suspension of disbelief that is always awkward to achieve in theatre, but this is to be expected. But whilst this issue is further intensified by the sheer persistence of the ‘characters’ of the cats and their symbolism, Finigan performs her interactions with these imagined creatures very convincingly. Even the attention to detail Finigan demonstrates in keeping the lid of the cardboard box left propped up so that the contents — or lack thereof — of the box should be concealed is simply wonderful to see. I commend Finigan, and perhaps Budimir too, for this precision.
Whilst on this topic, I should probably also quickly comment on the writing itself here: the inclusion of a cat is most promising in enabling an audience to develop feeling, compassion and, above all, a bond with Audrey, seeing how she helps and interacts with the innocent, desperate and vulnerable strays. Additionally, it does also make us question Audrey's true intents when she makes her later reappearance with her usual cat bowl in hand…and a gun – although, I am not too sure if this amounted to much in the end, in considering the lack of doubt we are made to feel throughout the rest of the text. A weak equivalent of a jump scare, perhaps. Nevertheless, this is a good opportunity for an audience to re-evaluate what they know of Audrey –– which is, efficaciously, very little.
However, symbolic as elements like the cat and the gun may be, or however promising actor credibility and set design are, the writing remains…problematic in places. Islamophobia remains rife not only in America, where this play is set, but most certainly in this country. Media representations of Islam and Muslims, and the terrorism far-too-often associated exclusively with these, along with their sensationalist fear-mongering, have been unignorably prevalent and damaging for decades now, as well. The context and material that the performance presents and examines, then, is most certainly relevant, topical and poignant. However, the manner in which this performance presents its politics is simply…taxing.
Islamophobia is a theme that arises only minutely in the beginning of the performance, very suddenly becoming monumental in the middle-end. In the beginning, the theme exists very little, to make room for a feeble sense of drama and intrigue as the secrets surrounding Eddie’s death and the reasoning behind Audrey absconding to Pennsylvania are left undisclosed. Such a degree of focus is placed on the characters and their circumstances and on Emma’s response to her mother’s abrupt and out-of-character behaviour that the political focus of the play becomes secondary, nay nonexistent. When it is later revealed to be a significant element, however, it quickly comes to comprise the credibility and depth of the characters and the plot that Graham has spent so much time engineering. I consider particularly here the longwinded scene between Douglas (played by Jason Wilson) and Audrey, where it is revealed that Audrey left for Pennsylvania due to the sheer discomfort and fear she had in regard to her own Islamophobia that she could feel brewing inhumanely within her. This scene, in particular, sets a mood for all subsequent scenes henceforward and provides a pivotal shift in focus with the unhindered and strictly defictionalised political voice it delivers.
From this scene on, we often lose sight of the characters themselves whose identities seem to be dulled or diminished at times, in favour of the voicing of political opinions. The characters – in this scene especially, I must emphasise – seem to function as mere mouthpieces for the sociopolitical undertones and messages of the text; they simply argue back and forth, their personalities and idiosyncrasies often forgotten to the rather sterile and incessant political outbursts. Whilst the politics of the text are important, in plays like this, in order to achieve maximum effect, political content should be interwoven seamlessly into the narrative; it should seem educational and enlightening yet clever and insidious. Watching two actors [NB the word ‘actors’ and not ‘characters’ here] rant at each other for over ten minutes is likely to alienate or, worse, bore audiences into disengagement from the performance and thus from the politics the performance aims to teach. This can only be far from didactic, and I am afraid that this effect of weariness/alienation was certainly produced on the night I saw the performance.
Unfortunately, I must say very bluntly that this scene simply bored me, and so I took the time to turn my attention to the audience. Whilst it is, of course, impossible for me to describe the response of any given audience of any performance with complete and incontestable certainty, I am surely still able to describe what I saw and its implication. Exempting myself and the ushers, there were exactly twenty-four audience members. Exactly thirteen, just over half, of these were either falling asleep or completely disengaged, staring off elsewhere or at their feet, or rolling their eyes and sighing with visible discontentment or ennui. Furthermore, to my surprise, upon leaving, I overheard the two audience members whom I believed to be the most engaged throughout share an exchange: “Well, you fell asleep, didn’t you?” “It was just that [sic] bit dragged.” I can only imagine that this was the very scene to which they were referring. I was not alone in my boredom, then. This is so unfortunate, because, as I said, the performers were certainly incredibly energised and credible – perhaps I shall go as far as to say the best collectively I have seen in a very long time – but the writing is simply far too heavy and unforgiving in areas like this to warrant full audience attention.
I must also mention the fact that the character of Emma assumes the role of social justice warrior against the ill-treatment of Muslims whilst hypocritically denigrating and prejudging the homeless. Furthermore, Audrey’s hysteria and fixation upon the happenings aboard one of the 9/11 planes also seem somewhat unrealistic. That someone [Audrey] who finds herself feeling so strongly against Muslims that they intend on smashing one of them over the head with a teacup, who regrets it and then runs away from herself to hide in the comforts and security of isolation, someone who feels such profound and perturbing shame and fear of oneself, would be someone who then spends hours and hours, days upon days obsessing over the events of the attack…it seems too extreme. And this is without mentioning that this is someone who, despite acting upon out-of-character whims, is mentally very sound and calm, analytical and intelligent. It seems as though the fact that Audrey is an academic, a historian with a propensity towards critical thinking and analysis, is perhaps stretched too far here, with Audrey going so far as to reconstruct what may have happened during her son's flight. These actions just do not coincide with a woman well practised in unbiased and impersonal critical analysis. With many a seemingly minute but actually rather destructive inconsistency like this, any sense of character identity and belonging becomes completely compromised and refutable.
Whilst I have noted that this scene, along with a few subsequent scenes, was rather boring, I must stress that actors dealt with pacing very well, in fact. I think the issue is solely with the writing itself. Graham sometimes fails to consider realistic fluidity of speech, with registers remaining inconsistent and with exchanges being reduced to a mere back-and-forth of emotionless and factual statements as opposed to exclamations or expressions with conviction, palpable belief and feeling – I should note here that this is not to imply that there should be a dramatic element to the delivery of every single line, but emotion should always be distinct and perceptible, intermingled with a character's judgement and thus their wording. I think in this scene, in particular, Graham was trying to create that sense of intrigue in the slow and cautious revelation of Audrey’s secret [her reason for running away]. This was not effective. Audrey's reluctance in revealing to us the reasons behind her Islamophobia quickly becomes overplayed and thus an annoyance.
On the topic of pacing, I should note quickly the incredibly pointless scene change wherein newspapers are cleared from the floor, the chair is reorganised, and for what? Only so that Roberts can sit elsewhere on the stage, away from the now-clean area, to perform a monologue in a spotlight alone before the end of the play? Pointless. The clutter should be left alone both to conserve time and to serve as a symbolic reference to Audrey’s hysteria. Furthermore, Wilson should not appear as a stagehand during transitions! Transitions are destructive to illusion enough alone. One final note: the utility knife – don’t actually use a functional, sharp and dangerous knife in a performance! Especially in a scene wherein a stunt of two characters wrestling each other takes place! Fake knives for theatres are cheap props that are easy to locate. Use these, instead. But perhaps this is more a health and safety-crazed outburst of mine than a critique on the artistry here.
Back to the writing. All things considered, this is a very good dramatic text, overall. A little hard to swallow due to its will to overload its audience with unadulterated and unrefined information, but one which takes good time to develop characters and their stories. It does have its fair share of symbolism, too, which is most effective and pleasing.
I must stress that the concept itself is polished, and the performance, as it stands, is as good as it can be, coming from the dramatic text. Even lighting (designed by Andrew Caddies) and sound (designed by Joe Dines) were well-designed and facilitative, with the former being simple yet sufficient and evocative, and the latter creeping seamlessly into the space and working the emotive material out of the page. But one can only do so much with a dramatic text that is flawed to some degree. If changes cannot or will not be made, I can only recommend more visual appeal, that the performers work with the director closely to identify moments that are far too still or stagnant and find a way to energise them –– I could imagine, for instance, Audrey reintroducing the kittens, feeding them; making a cup of tea, avoiding eye contact with Douglas; anything to make these scenes feel busier, as opposed to just having the performers generally still, their expression limited to the face and the voice.
A few final notes. First, a slighter and rather awkward but very important point: I must recommend that Roberts work on how she holds her mouth when delivering lines whilst eating. With eating and talking becoming more and more consistent as the play progresses, Roberts spat far too frequently and far too much, and this was sometimes in the audience’s direction. Again, an awkward one to note but important, nevertheless. A performer must be aware of their entire body and how it is being controlled and held, and the mouth is no exception. As soon as a performer spits, an audience will instantly be taken out of the world of the play and be aware of the physical reality of the space, of the abject spittle and morsels of food that may be projected at them. This is distracting, off-putting and subtractive.
My very final note considers a directorial issue: the manner in which the audience is addressed. The choice to have Roberts perform to an audience member as though she were the infamous ‘Monique’ from what I shall refer to as Emma’s group therapy sessions is simply awkward, distracting and, above all, needless. Roberts has not addressed an audience member as Monique yet at all, and so to do so now seems completely incongruent and overdramatic. That she should even just sit in the audience in this scene, too, is most unnecessary and weakens the impact of the material of the scene. I understand that this was most likely done to directly accuse the audience of Islamophobia or their compliance with it, to attack them intimately, to force them to introspection, to reflect, to question themselves; this is not the case. It is simply awkward and disillusioning. The action played right in front of the audience Downstage, by the 'porch', was also unnecessary and subtractive, particularly in an early scene where Finigan stands off in the corner, far Downstage Left, hidden out of sight from the stage-left audience and obtrusive to the audience Downstage. Being in such close proximity with the audience invites them to feel as though they are physically trespassing upon a heavily fictionalised world from they have already been forcibly distanced, and this leads to a sense of destabilisation where the audience member becomes acutely aware of their position and role within the performance, no longer lost in the illusory world of the play but focused only on themselves. This is unwanted.
It is because of moments like this that are completely catastrophic, shattering the world created by the performers and their portrayals of rather well-imagined and solid characters, and because of the similar effects produced by the indecisive writing and its struggles to maintain a consistent voice, that I give this performance the rating that I do.