Dorfman, National Theatre, London
Fantastic Duncan Macmillan! Along with Simon Stephens he has become one of British theatre’s most prized, sought-after playwrights. Compassionate, wide-ranging, his recent plays have included subjects on depression (Every Brilliant Thing), fertility (Lungs) climate change (2071) whilst his adaptation and co-direction with Robert Icke of George Orwell’s1984 for Headlong carried all before it.
With his latest, Macmillan turns his attention to another problem of our age, addiction. Daily headlines highlight the social chaos caused by alcohol and drug abuse. Macmillan chooses to focus directly on one individual, Emma, and those immediately around her.
And it is a `her’. More, it is a `her’ who happens to be an actress thereby introducing a fascinating meditation on addiction as not only a desire to live life intensely but also the seldom voiced connection between acting and addiction, of playing `another’ and its consequent loss of identity – though Macmillan doesn’t quite grapple with which comes first. Do actors become actors because of lack of identity? Or t’other way round?
Even so, this is a graphic, often harrowing account of life inside rehab and its personal inter-actions. The title, People, Places & Things is taken from the AA’s 12-step programme and so authentic is Macmillan’s depiction of Emma’s journey, one can’t help wondering if the author has drawn on his own personal experience.
Be that as it may, more importantly, Macmillan with current Headlong director Jeremy Herrin have delivered a play and a production that stuns with its capacity to create the hallucinatory nature of rehab with its medically induced multiple personalities, its group therapies and in Emma’s case, aggressive resistance to recovery.
Within a white-tiled wrap-around setting, Herrin’s cast, led by Denise Gough as Emma stir up extraordinary visceral intensity and humour – bluntly contrasted with the outside reality of Emma’s homecoming when, armed with a practise speech of apology and confession, she is confronted by the hard facts of parents too traumatised by the past to easily forgive or change.
Gough’s is a performance of gut-wrenching, luminous honesty but Barbara Marten also supplies a superbly nuanced trio of roles as the unit doctor/therapist and mother with an ensemble every one of whom are vital to the sum of the whole.
People, Place & Things runs at the Dorfman, National Theatre to Nov 4, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2015