Sinners – Playground Theatre, London

Reviewer: Miriam Sallon

Writer: Joshua Sobol

Director: Brian Cox

If instead of a post-apocalyptic philosophical abstraction, Beckett had written about a real situation with real people, he’d have come up with something like Sinners.

Set against a wall covered in bullet marks and blood spatters, a figure covered by a cloth is seemingly hunched over on the sandy desert floor. Buried to her chest, Layla (Nicole Ansari) is awaiting death by stoning for the crime of adultery. Nur (Adam Sina), her lover, has been instructed to collect and pile stones ready for the bloodthirsty crowd. Of course, he’s forbidden to speak to her during his task, but Layla has determined to have one final say.

Explaining the plot of Sinners doesn’t really come close to explaining its spirit. Meeting these characters moments before a death penalty, carried out in such a heinous fashion for an unworthy crime, one would expect a lot of long wailing monologues full of poetic diatribes and sorrowful regrets, and justifiably so, though it might not be especially entertaining. Instead Joshua Sobol writes a witty, dancing dialogue between two lovers, slipping between petty spats about who said what to whom, and passionate, intimate dirty talk.

Despite the fact that Layla is covered by a cloth for the first ten minutes and thereafter buried in sand, the dynamic of power is completely skewed in her favour. Leading the conversation so expertly, she is clearly Nur’s intellectual superior. Lamenting, for example, that he must have been lashed for their crime, he swears not, and she insists he remove his shirt to prove it. But it transpires she just wants to see him topless one more time, “I touch your perfect body with my mind”, she says, mischievously quoting Leonard Cohen.

Ansari is magnetic, expressing both Layla’s straight-backed pride and her obviously tortuous and tragic circumstances. Sina, too, is artful in his ebb and flow between passionate lover and whining weakling. The situation is so unthinkable, Sinners doesn’t seek to judge these characters, only to sympathise.

Brian Cox’s direction is unfussy, allowing the script to speak for itself. There’s a sense that we’re meant to be surprised by the narrative’s climax, but whilst it seems inevitable from the start, the build-up is still taut and energetic.

A dark horse of a show, Sinners handles difficult and weighty subject matter with originality and flair. Combining existentialism and whimsy with discussions of violent oppression and subjugation, it seems an unlikely marriage, but somehow it works.

Runs until 14 March 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Witty tragedy

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