Mites and Dutchman make for a provocative pair of plays currently running at the Tristan Bates Theatre
“What are you prepared for?”
The publicity for James Mannion’s new play Mites ricochets between psychological thriller and bleakly absurdist comedy and it is a tension that epitomises much of the whole experience. In a world of mysterious workmen, anthropomorphic cats and talking dust mites, the playwright also seeks to situate a serious discussion about mental health and domestic abuse, a combination which ultimately satisfies on neither front.
Claire Marie Hall’s Ruth is at the centre here, an unreliable narrator of sorts as we try to ascertain whether we’re in the realm of fantasy or cold hard reality. A pest controller arrives and declares he is her missing husband returned to her. Her cat isn’t so sure and tells her so. The layers of confusion work insofar as challenging assumptions about mental health and the frequent shakiness of the grip we want to show the world we have.
And if Mannion had doubled down on the absurdist side, as a crucial scene midway through seems to suggest he will, Mites might have hung together much more satisfactorily. Instead, there’s a shift to a feminist revenge thriller which feels unearned, unexplored and thus cheap. George Howard and Richard Henderson do well as the male figures around Ruth but Marcus Marsh’s direction doesn’t do enough to make a convincing, cohesive whole.
More successful at the Tristan Bates Theatre right now is a revival of Amiri Baraka’s civil rights era play Dutchman. Hallucinatory and challenging, it has lost none of its power to speak to race relations today, evoking thoughts of the treatment of any number of public figures of colour against whom hurricanes of torment are whipped up by the callous evil of media bosses and breakfast TV presenters.
Here, Cheska Hill-Wood’s Lula is the instigator, a young woman travelling on the subway who lights upon James Barnes’ Clay and slowly but surely sinks her claws in. Playing on racial and sexual stereotypes, she goads him into perilous action but it is the suggestibility of her fellow passengers that really chills, all too easily recognisable as they – we – turn and look the other way.