Writer: Anna Ziegler
Director: Oscar Toeman
Reviewer: David Guest
Powerful and pertinent themes pervade Anna Ziegler’s Actually – but the important central contemporary subject matter never becomes more important than the broader human questions, the gripping drama and scintillating performances.
Indeed, in this potent two-hander by Anna Ziegler the obvious question about sexual consent and what really happened on one drunken night of romance between two first-year students at an Ivy League university is left hanging, with the audience challenged to work out the truth, the lies and the maybes.
Actually is making its long-awaited European premiere at the Trafalgar Studios and offers profound, complex and riveting theatre with wit and intellect in just 85 minutes.
It begins with the two Princeton University students, Amber and Tom, meeting at a school social event and – significantly as it turns out – playing a game of “two truths and a lie” which she instigates, “if you wanna sleep with me tonight.”
As the drama unfolds we learn that they have been fascinated and intrigued by each other and that the initial encounter leads to an inebriated sexual encounter. Tom regards it as consensual, while Amber reports it to the university authorities as rape and they find themselves having to give evidence at a panel who want to discover if the establishment’s sexual conduct policy has been breached.
If you hope for clear answers you’ll be disappointed. We rely on the two characters presenting their own side of the story, which is always going to be biased though we do get a fair balance with both equally represented. Additionally, the panel of three “neutral appointees” hearing the case have their own prejudices and we never actually hear what their conclusion is or which of the two students is ultimately branded the liar.
The play was written and first performed in the United States two years ago at a time when there was beginning to be a shift in the way such cases were viewed. President Obama’s administration had stated that the standard of proof should be that one person’s story could be believed with just the slightest edge over the other (“fifty per cent plus a feather”); the current government has tended to grant universities more leeway to make a decision based on “clear and convincing” evidence.
The two freshmen characters prowl around the stage, both predatory, both young and inexperienced, both trying to come to terms with what happened – or didn’t happen – on the one night in question. We are given narrative from both points of view not just on the night but also the deeper context of personal backgrounds and feelings. While there is an obvious immediate attraction between them they also spot each other’s failings and there is a sense that a rocky relationship is being forged on the basis of love at first slight.
Director Oscar Toeman shows deep comprehension of the writer’s intentions when it would be all too easy to focus on a single issue. Occasionally, as the actors circle the stage delivering their monologues, the other watches and reacts; we realise that nothing is said in isolation, that sometimes between themselves even a negative remark can command respect and understanding. This, of course, underlines the difficulty any outsider faces in pinpointing the truth.
The directorial decision is helpful: apart from the rare flashbacks the pair hardly engage with other in words – when we see just one moment of confrontation during the hearing both are filled with frenzied rage, which is unnerving.
Yasmin Paige is the vulnerable Amber, in her own words at college for the whole experience, not just the reading and studying. Paige completely inhabits this awkward yet sassy Jewish girl, rattling through her lines “Usain Bolt-fast,” so lacking in confidence and plagued by body image issues that she sometimes feels like a character in The Crucible, not entirely sure whether her favourite book is Gone Girlor The Iliad, yet perceptive enough to recognise that “sometimes not everything I say is 100 percent totally true.”
Interestingly, throughout the play she epitomises a central idea of young people wanting to fit in and going along with peer pressure – on a couple of occasions she allows herself to be talked into doing something by friends, and even the allegation of rape appears to have been motivated by what a friend tells her she should do. She is in many ways the harder character to fathom, and her outspoken comments (“macro-aggression” as Tom sees it) could make her dislikeable, but Paige ably grasps the play’s tonal ebbs and flows, giving Amber a strong three-dimensionality.
Simon Manyonda is the brash and self-confident black student Tom, also bringing a load of emotional baggage with him, not least an absent father and a sick mother. With an arrogant streak defining his every word and action we discover someone unable to read situations clearly – more than once we see him surprised and shocked by both male and female attention.
He is always acutely aware of how black people have been treated by the justice system (perhaps he fears the same fate) and wonders how you can ever properly defend yourself – “Is it by what you say or how you say it?” Manyonda shows the fragility behind the confidence and the direct addresses to the audience almost become a plea for acceptance and friendship.
Cindy Lin’s set design is a striking part of the whole: what initially appears to be black and white marbled halls of the university becomes a cloudy grey, directly reflecting the uncertainties of the play itself.
While Ziegler’s nuanced drama explores a particular case, you will have missed much if you fail to see the wider questions being asked. It is not so much about the “yes” or “no” or “actually” as it is about who and what we believe (most of all ourselves), and who humans are in all their emotions, perplexities, insecurities, backgrounds, mindsets and misunderstandings at any given moment in time. Both young characters have their lives turned around by events that they can barely remember honestly, and they are as unable to judge their actions or recollections as the university panel or the audience.
Ultimately it is a development of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man!” as it unpicks the joys, strengths and despair of the human condition, while never forgetting that we actually matter.
Runs until 31 August 2019 | Image: Lidia Crisafulli