Orange Tree Theatre, London ****
Letting go of grief. There are many ways and sometimes none will do. It must be the most difficult thing in the world to lose a child. From what I’ve learnt from friends, that feeling of loss never goes.
Very wonderfully, Orange Tree’s Paul Miller has discovered this new Dutch writer, Lot Vekemans. Poison – curiously its original name was Gif – was actually staged in the Netherlands eight years ago.
It’s taken a while to arrive in the UK but like so much from abroad, in Rina Vergano’s translation, it is a breath of fresh air, not so much in the issue confronted but in the manner of its development.
There is something exquisitely philosophical and European about Vekemans’ approach, at once logical and precise as she moves her two-hander from a point of unresolved conflict and outright hostility to, if not complete reconciliation, at least a peace-making.
The model she creates is that of a youngish couple, husband and wife, who have not seen each other or had contact for nine years. They are meeting in a cemetery chapel. But why?
Vekemans unravels the mystery of their location and separation only bit by tiny bit, each exchange pushing us just a little further. Like Pinter, it’s a masterly control of exchange and response.
Zubin Varla’s nervy husband and Claire Price’s cool wife don’t exactly circle each other. In Miller’s in-the-round staging, they often sit across the way from each other, as if each is surrounded by an electrically charged field the other dare not enter.
In a sense that’s true. He walked out on her nine years ago, on New Year’s Eve a little before the dawning of the new millennium. They had lost a child in a car accident and such had been the burden of grief, it had separated and finally broken them. They had lost each other.
Varla is an extraordinary actor. His hooded eyes seem to almost pierce the armour-plated cool of Price – a woman for whom grief has almost swallowed her up whole. They are perfectly matched.
And Vetermans also shows us brilliantly a clashing and fundamental contrast of a male and female mind as each tries to justify long held positions but both now in need of some kind of rapprochement.
It’s beautifully sustained, engrossing even, even if within the intimate confines of the Orange Tree Varla’s moments of distress and quiet pain sometimes makes him almost inaudible.
But he can also when required produce electrifying intensity, offset by Price’s wonderfully conveyed account of self-defensive stand-off.
The subtle playing between the two of them, of light and shade, of retreat and then attack, of shifting emotions becomes a softer, sadder game of Strindbergian chess, fascinating and ultimately deeply touching as they edge towards a resolution echoing Mindfulness’s Buddhist way of acceptance and of the simple pleasure of living in the moment.
He has discovered some emotional respite through singing (and a new, younger and now pregnant wife); she more sceptical has no belief that happiness can be hers in the future again. Yet Vekemans shows still they are able to make a bridge across to each other.
Vekemans naturally takes a few dramatic licenses in her detailing of what has passed between them in the past. But nonetheless, Poison grips with relentless psychological and artistic truth.
I hope we see more of her work. Congratulations to Miller for bringing her to our notice.
Along with French writer Magali Mougel’s Suzy Storck (currently at the Gate, Notting Hill) and recent plays from Florian Zeller, the European connection, I’m pleased to say is still alive and well in British Theatre.
A new play by Lot Vekemans
English translation by Rina Vergano
He: Zubin Varla
She: Claire Price
Director: Paul Miller
Designer: Simon Daw
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday
Sound Designer & Composer: George Dennis
Costume Supervisor: Clio Alphas
Casting: Rebecca Murphy
An Orange Tree production
British premiere of Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, London, Nov 2, 2017. Runs to Dec 2, 2017
World premiere of Poison, originally entitled Gif was at NTGent/NL, Dec 8, 2009
Review published on this site, Nov 8, 2017