Writer: Lot Vekemans
Director: Paul Miller
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Another week, another one-act two-hander opens in London. First Heisenberg at the Wyndham’s and, last week, Trestle at Southwark Playhouse and now, this week, Poison at the Orange Tree Theatre. Whereas the other two are forms of romcoms tracing the first days of new relationships, Poison takes place at the other end, focussing on a failed marriage torn apart by grief.
First performed in Belgium in 2007, Poison, by Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans, receives its British premiere and is directed by Paul Miller, the Orange Tree’s artistic director and who is responsible for breathing new life into lesser-known plays by Rattigan, Shaw and Maughan. Although the text has been translated by Rina Vergano, there’s something still very European about this production. It’s performed very earnestly, perhaps not unexpected for a play about the death of a child, but a British play about the same subject might have kept in some dark humour to alleviate the pain. In Poison, however, the laughs are muted and our divorcées have existential crises while eating Brie and quaffing red wine. It’s that kind of play. The set’s working coffee vending machine gets the most laughs here.
Our characters have no names; Ponderously, in the text they are called He and She. They are meeting at the cemetery where their son, Jacob, is buried. They haven’t seen each other for nine years since He walked out on her on a New Year’s Eve, but they are meeting today because there’s something leaking into the graveyard, some kind of poison, which may mean that they will have to rebury their son somewhere else.
It begins like a ghost story or a Gothic tale by Henry James. The official, who has arranged the meeting, doesn’t turn up, and He can hear something moving in the corridors beyond. But soon the play loses its supernatural tones and instead examines how grief, left unresolved, can act like a poison.
They meet inside one of the cemetery’s visitor rooms like virtual strangers: She, played by Claire Price, is eager and chipper and it seems like she has a plan while He, a hoarse Zubin Varla, appears more pragmatic though his reticence may mean that he has something to hide. Varla underacts to such an extent that his performance becomes very stylised, a method that is not reflected by Price. This may be a deliberate strategy, rendering the first few minutes of their meeting even stranger. In the nine years since Jacob’s death He has moved on and remarried. In Freudian terms, he has found a new object of affection to replace the lost one. He is a successful mourner. She, however, can’t let go of her grief, nor does she want to, in case it appears as if she is forsaking her son. Her grief, as She says, defines her. Can He help her move on?
For much of the play, Miller keeps the house lights on, and Simon Daw’s set looks like an extension of the theatre. The two benches on stage are almost the same colours as our seats, and the carpet appears to echo that of the Orange Tree. Perhaps these decisions are to blur the fiction on stage with the reality of our own lives, to suggest that this is a universal story and that we’re all in this together, but keeping the house lights up only serves to estrange us even more from the uncomfortable relationship unravelling, or perhaps reforming, on stage.
It’s difficult to empathise with the couple, despite their bereavement and the amount of times that lines are repeated becomes irritating and does little to drive the story forward. While bringing up some interesting ideas on how we deal with grief, it seems like a long 80 minutes. Not quite an antidote for the winter, Poison is a rare misfire for the Orange Tree.
Runs until 2 December 2017 | Image: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard