“Something happened…the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong choice…”
Taking over the reins of Artistic Director at the Hampstead Theatre, Edward Hall has launched his first season with a new Shelagh Stephenson play, Enlightenment, directed by himself. The set-up is based around Adam, a 20 year old backpacker who has gone missing on a round the world trip, and the attempts by his mother Lia, step-father Nick and grandfather Gordon to find out what has happened to him through increasingly desperate means, including a psychic and a television documentary. When someone called Adam then turns up at the airport having been tracked down to a Thai hospital, their world is rocked as some serious questions are posed.
Stephenson has a huge amount to say but making Lia the mouthpiece of all of it means that by the time she has espoused on issues like chaos theory, the lack of spirituality in the Western world, her liberal upper-middle-class guilt and global interconnectedness, it is extremely difficult to remember that we are meant to be empathising with a mother who has lost her son. The first half is particularly guilty of this pontificating but things begin to look up somewhat after the interval as we move into thriller territory and a better integrated use of some of the themes.
Julie Graham copes as best she can with the dialogue and better at the struggle to constantly do the right thing, but is predictably stronger in her quieter moments when her face shows the struggle to hide the grief gnawing from inside. Tom Weston-Jones as the cuckoo in the nest who appears at the airport steers the play down its darker moments well (although his proclivities and the subsequent twist were given away too early by his choice of underwear, Aussiebums!) but generally, the sense of what Stephenson is trying to say here is frustratingly elusive and made more difficult by the abrupt tonal shifts.
This was typified by Polly Kemp’s medium, a total caricature whose appearances pushed us dangerously close to sitcom-based farce when . Daisy Beaumont managed to rise above her manipulative documentary maker Joanna’s own farcical beginnings to find some darker humour but as Lia’s politician father, Paul Freeman is criminally under-used and his character allowed no meaningful stage time and Richard Clothier as her exercise-obsessed husband Nick is wryly funny at times but saddled with some clunkers of lines which failed to excavate any emotional honesty.
It is a very attractively designed production. Francis O’Connor has created a pod-like pristine white oval room, serving equally well as the ultra-modern study which is slowly decluttered by Lia, but through the projections of Andrzej Goulding also ingeniously becomes their garden or an airport lounge, it is a most striking design aesthetic and rather moving with its repeated ghostly images reaching out. Combined with Peter Mumford’s lighting, with its punctuating exploding flashbulbs, this is a design team doing some very exciting work.
Throwing in such metaphysical constructs like the theory of non-locality into the mix drew comparisons with Stoppard’s Arcadia, but so many of the themes in Enlightenment are not fleshed out enough in the writing to engage in the same way and the play feels almost schizophrenic in its lurches between moods. That said, there are elements to enjoy here and it is stunning to look at and makes for an intriguing debut to Edward Hall’s tenure in Swiss Cottage with much to look forward to (not least Katie Mitchell directing something for 25 people at a time set in a living room in the new Studio downstairs).
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 30th October
Note: lots of smoking, some bad language, a fair bit of flashing lights and a brief bit of full male nudity