Writer: Mark Ravenhill
Director: Polly Thomas
When the pandemic hit last year, playwright Mark Ravenhill (Citizenship, Some Explicit Polaroids) wondered if his desire to write would disappear. Instead of stalling, Ravenhill found that his writing diverged.
His latest play, an audio work, explores the life of his mother, Angela, and her struggle with dementia. Told in flashback, and across several decades, Angela utilises the memories of Mark and his parents to create Ravenhill’s most personal play to date.
As a biography of the Ravenhills, the beautifully detailed Angela touches on the role creativity plays in their lives. This is a family that not only enjoys the arts – Mark’s bedtime story is Wind in the Willows on repeat – but actively participates in them. Before meeting her husband Ted, Angela joins the local am-dram society and scores a leading role; Ted and Mark create a film inspired by the story of Jemima Puddleduck. Ravenhill’s metaphor of the imaginary world is employed to devastating effect, as Angela’s mind begins to detach from reality.
Telling the story of his mother’s illness, Ravenhill uses sound – and its ability to tap into memory – to flesh out the scenes. Drawing on real conversations, and imagined introspection, the play stitches together the sounds of Angela’s past and present with care and precision. Audio becomes the central means of introducing and building character. The sound design by John Scott is extraordinary: we have The Tales of Beatrix Potter combining with memories from Mark’s childhood and Angela’s early married life to create a soundscape that is profoundly emotional and psychologically astute.
It is in the latter part of the play where Ravenhill examines the cruelty of dementia. In some distressing scenes, Pam Ferris as Older Angela fails to make sense of her memories, as they pull through in threads. Ferris is excellent, slipping into a fear and confusion that is hard to listen to, but Ravenhill makes us her witness.
As Ted, Toby Jones gives a fascinating portrait of a man caught in conservative masculinity (he worries about Mark’s interest in ballet), but at the same time, he revels in sharing his love of reading with his son. Ravenhill’s depiction of his parents is both complex and challenging, but so vividly drawn, you cannot help being moved by their story.
There is always the risk in biography of getting distracted by the nostalgic elements, but Ravenhill’s play has a keen sense of focus. Angela of course succeeds as a biographical piece, but Ravenhill also examines the effect of trauma, and how it can manifest, even years later. Looking at how trauma is processed both by the individual and the institution, Angela reflects on the journey we have made as a society. Attitudes may be changing, but Ravenhill asks us to notice in Angela how damage accrues over a lifetime. This is not just a play about the loss of memory, but how memories can stick to us far too closely.
Available here until 2 April 2021