“This is not me ranting”
As the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks looms, London theatres are looking to mark the occasion in their own ways: Headlong’s unique immersive approach has brought together 19 writers to create something new, the King’s Head are reviving the opera Manifest Destiny that questions US culpability in the attack and the Pleasance has this revival of Neil LaBute’s 2002 play The Mercy Seat, one of the first theatrical responses which predictably attracted much controversy in its original run.
The timing of brand new company Glow Box Production’s revival would seem to be a natural fit, but the truth is that the events of the 11th September only form a backdrop to LaBute’s play, they act as a trigger to the human drama that plays out but it is far from the central thrust of the work, something which a little distance from the actual event clearly helps with. Instead the focus is on the relationship between Ben and Abby and the choices they make in the face of the opportunity presented to them in the face of tragedy as they escape death by having taken the morning off for a sneaky liaison at her apartment. They’ve been having an affair for the past three years and see in the chaos of a city in turmoil, a chance to sneak off and start a life together but there’s more than a few issues that stand in the way.
As one would expect from LaBute, this illicit relationship is a far from easy one: Abby is older than him and Ben’s boss, he is married with children, and as they battle back and forth about how much they really mean to each other, examine exactly what it is that each of them is having to sacrifice in order to go through with eloping and the morality of their actions at a time when their colleagues have been killed. Playing in real time, Janine Ingrid Ulfane and Sean O’Neil sketched out the twisted dynamics of this couple with great relish: the physicality of their relationship palpable though not necessarily quite enough to bridge the intellectual gap between them: LaBute has lots of fun peppering Abby’s chat with references that Ben just doesn’t get, this humour providing some much-needed relief.
For The Mercy Seat is not a particularly easy watch, its protagonists are not especially likeable and their actions are all about the selfishness of the pursuit of individual desire at a time when an unprecedented sense of community was prevailing. But this is what LaBute excels at, caustic tense tales of the darker side of human nature, the grabby opportunism of seizing what one wants without thinking too much about others, the desperation of needing to be the first to be told that we are loved and the compromises we’re willing to make in order to hear it, of needing the sense of victory over the other woman. The way in which the dialogue flows feels very naturalistic, there are no dramatic arcs but rather the real-time aspects allows for the cranking up of an already tense atmosphere to breaking point as the time for planning the escape finishes and all that is left is that final step of commitment.
Director Rob Watt has teased very impressive performances from both Ulfane – her verbal toying with Ben is whip-sharp, belying the emotional dependence on him that she hates herself for – and from O’Neil – his incomprehension that he could be anything than a perfect lover squaring with his not quite Alpha-male status, the American dream not quite delivering what it had promised – and it is this acting that stays with you. The play itself is not perfect, occasionally a little too self-consciously cold and repetitive, but LaBute’s evenhandedness in his characterisation means that our sympathies are forever shifting, keeping us on our toes. In Nik Corrall’s dustsheet-covered set with rolling news coverage of the attack partly visible, providing a constant but unobtrusive reminder of the harshly real world outside of the apartment, the tightly-coiled intensity of these two lovers battling against each other proves a thrilling watch.