I've been trying to write this post for over two weeks, but things keep getting in the way: this piece about playing Shylock; the enticing peculiarity of the new Felice Brothers album; the course I've started at Morley College; the background reading I want to do for a new, terribly exciting project inspired by the writer/adventurer/surrealist/oddball Cendrars, with which I'm imminently very peripherally to be involved; the not inconsiderable anxiety (unfounded, as it turned out) of preparing to take my kids on my own on the nine-hour journey to my parents' house in Cyprus; the Douglas Sirks in my mum's DVD collection (oh, the wonder of Magnificent Obsession). I should just let it slide and get on with enthusing about Wild Beasts or the National's production of Rocket to the Moon. But I can't, because I've been too discombobulated by Andrew Haydon's review of the new Simon Stephens, Wastwater. I couldn't sleep after reading it, for re-examining the play and my response to it, and fretting over my impressionability, the difficulty I have maintaining my own opinions in the face of contradiction. Andrew's subtle evaluation of the play almost persuaded me that Wastwater is a work of genius, and stupid me for not realising it at the time of watching. But only almost.
I thought the first section, depicting a tender, awkward, fragile mother-son-or-are-they relationship, was staggeringly good, its poignancy delicately conveyed in Linda Bassett and Tom Sturridge's open-hearted performances. But the two sections after that, in which a policewoman reveals herself to an art teacher and a child trafficker delivers an Asian girl to a middle-aged man, I found much less involving or believable. This didn't trouble me overmuch, until I read Andrew's review. He described a lot of the thoughts that went through my head while watching the play: is this relationship about this? No, it's about that. Are we looking at this unpalatable truth? No, we're looking at that. But whereas I cheerfully dismissed a lot of them, Andrew located in their provocation and odiousness much of the play's complexity, slipperiness and brilliance.
That thesis, Andrew's appreciation of the tautness and scope of text and Katie Mitchell's production, his microscopic attention to every detail, are thrilling in their clarity and exactitude. I no less clearly recall finding Wastwater unsatisfying, and everything I've read and seen since has thrown up its ha'penny explanation why. To start with, there's the book I was reading on the tube that week, a collection of essays by Flannery O'Connor called Mystery and Manners. Her focus is prose-writing, specifically short stories, but what she says about the revelation of character – and it really sank in, because when O'Connor makes a key point, she makes it fiercely and repeatedly – feels salient.
“I often ask myself [this is O'Connor in 1962] what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. … It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.”
O'Connor was Catholic, so the mystery she refers to relates chiefly to our relationship with God. But I lost God somewhere on the Brixton Road years ago, and so, at the risk of missing her point, what absorbs me here is the possibility for reflecting upon the profoundly bewildering mysteries of human relationships, with other humans, with time, with the culture we have made, with this planet we inhabit. These are precisely the mysteries with which Stephens is concerned – but he didn't quite engage me with his choice of gestures. The policewoman fills the hotel room with noise: TV, radio, a porn film on the internet. The art teacher slaps her around the face. The child trafficker pretends to shoot her customer. The man stares helplessly at the child he has bought. There is a coldness to all this, an iciness to Stephens' characters. Except in the first section, and that was the bit I most enjoyed.
Tangled up in this is a realisation that variations of these gestures are made in Dan Rebellato's Chekhov in Hell, which I watched the night after seeing Wastwater, and liked much more – except for the opening 30 minutes, which felt rather forced. Rebellato's reawakened Chekhov immerses himself in all the media noise, the violence and horror, of the modern world. And there are two key moments in the play, moments that made me shiver. In the first, a female TV producer recalls “every little compromise” she's made, the decisions – to quote Stephens – that stay with you, as though the consequences of them stay in your bones. She is talking faster and faster, uncontrollably revealing herself, and suddenly describes being in a stranger's flat at three in the morning, begging them to come on her face, because she feels that lost and that worthless that this seems the only way left to make anyone happy. In the second, Chekhov asks a young woman who works as a prostitute – trafficked from Ukraine – what went wrong with the world. Her reply is emotionless, chilling, almost incomprehensible because it's delivered in Russian. One phrase is repeated so often that its meaning becomes unmistakable. “Milliony smertyei”: millions die. Beneath the still surface of Wastwater lie countless lost bodies. The mud of the earth is mixed with blood.
It fascinates me that these plays are so convergent, for all their dissimilarity. And I wonder whether the key difference is that the characters making these gestures in Rebellato's play are simply more sympathetic: warm somehow, despite their brittle surfaces.
I thought I would write more here: about the passage in Dominic Dromgoole's book The Full Room, in which he compares the hope underscoring Chekhov's plays with the glib despair he sees in much modern theatre; about this assessment from another Flannery O'Connor essay, that a writer “may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by”. But this post is already too long, and something I encountered earlier tonight suddenly made me recognise where my real discomfort lies. Without having met him, I like Simon Stephens enormously, and have a lot of respect for him – even more after reading this. I wanted so much from Wastwater: everything Andrew Haydon found in it. And no amount of time or tangled thinking seems adequately to explain why I felt let down.