Writer: Guillem Clua
Director: Paula Paz
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
After the death of a loved one, grief can make people do or say extraordinary things, but one aspect of mourning that people are less likely to discuss is how competitive it makes them. Along with all the charming things that are said about the deceased, it can also unleash a need to prove who loved them the most, who knew them best and who is most upset.
Guillem Clua’s play The Swallow takes this as the rather unexpected starting point of a story about the collision of two very different people who discover they have the death of a loved one in common. Singing teacher Emily dismisses potential new pupil Ray as beneath her dignity to teach, but instead of leaving, the two enter into a lengthy discussion that proves they are far closer connected than Emily had realised. As the recriminations begin and tempers fray, the truth about Danny – the link between them – is revealed.
Returning to the Cervantes Theatre for a second run, Clua’s play is part of their Spanish playwriting season, performed separately in both Spanish and English versions. It’s a 90-minute show built around the ebb and flow of tension between a grieving mother and the stranger who lies his way into her home. Clua has lots to say about wide-ranging political and human issues that covers gay rights, terrorist attacks, mother-son relationships and occasionally religion.
Structurally, The Swallow feels rather formulaic and occasionally even soapy, as a series of mini-revelations reigniting hostilities between the characters until the melodrama becomes almost comical. It’s a story that holds very few surprises and if you guess Ray’s purpose early on then it saps much of the play’s dramatic momentum, making its run-time seem overextended.
And while allowances are made for a translated text, some of the lines are too clunky lines for natural speech, including Emily asking, “what makes us human,” and later “a mine can’t hurt you if you don’t tread on it”. These pull you out of the drama and add to the unlikely emotionalism of the piece as characters start unburdening themselves within minutes of meeting each other but never quite win the audience’s sympathy.
Both actors are occasionally stilted but relax into their roles as the show unfolds. In the English-language version Jeryl Burgess plays Emily whose brutal critique of Ray’s singing introduces a character that its hard to like. Later in the play she reveals a shocking homophobia that drives the plot – referring to Ray as “your people” and making strange claims about the world changing so fast despite homosexuality being decriminalised 50 years ago. Burgess suggests all the bitterness and bile of the women but also the guilt of a lost opportunity to be with her son, although when she asks “Do you think I’m a monster” the answer is pretty much yes.
As Ray, David Luque’s performance is full of impassioned speeches and disappointment at Emily’s reaction. With the difficult role of performing the same part in both the Spanish and English versions, Luque suggests a depth to Ray’s love and grief, but his tendency to over-share details of his life with Danny and a slight arrogance prevents any real sympathy for his plight.
For a show that is primarily about Danny, he is curiously absent from a play that talks a lot about his life and feelings but never quite makes his relationships seem real. Represented in a photo frame by a fairly implausible catalogue model, not knowing much more than Danny’s sexuality and experience in the choir hampers our connection to the level of grief that Emily and Ray display. While its great to see more European work making its way to London, the melodrama of Cula’s play makes this production hard to swallow.
Runs until 26 May 2018 | Image: Contributed