Tel Chiuri and Flossie Adrian "excel" in this new playMary O'Shaughnessy with permission for Varsity

Love and grief seem to be two emotions forever explored on stage, so I’ll always be intrigued by new ways of understanding what these emotions mean in today’s world. It’s a shame then that UnEarthed, a new play by Gregory Miller and directed by Mel Hamilton, lacks the focus to really explore what these powerful feelings mean. It’s a mostly conventional story about two siblings, Sam and Charlie, dealing with the death of their alcoholic father.

“It has to be said that the two leads excel”

Firstly, it has to be said, the two leads excel. Tel Chiuri, playing Charlie, was a revelation in how they were able to use body language to express their emotions. Their physical presence was marvellous, embodying Charlie’s changing emotional state in subtle ways as they tensed and loosened their body. Flossie Adrian masterfully embodies the more reserved Sam. From reserved anger to a devastating sense of loss, their ability to communicate such a multiplicity of emotions through their face was extraordinary.

The pair also sensitively portrayed the play’s illustration of how depression and alcoholism intersect with grief to tear through a family. Its impacts were clear in the actors’ performances, reverberating with the trauma of their childhood experiences, and the mental scars it left. The fear they conveyed when disturbances at the gravesite suggested their father would return was incredibly visceral.

And yet, something about their dynamic felt off and undefined. Though they are introduced as estranged, I still never really got the sense that they ever had that implicit bond that siblings often have (no matter how estranged). They felt oddly distant from one another and I never saw any sense of tenderness between the two, which made their eventual reconciliation feel unearned.

“The play makes the bold choice of having both characters be gender neutral”

This lack of clarity also applies to the way that the play approaches gender. It makes the bold choice of having both characters be gender neutral and, at the same time, ignore the impact of that entirely. Familial dynamics are some of the most gendered we have and this has an impact on the way we grieve — daddy issues, by their nature, are incredibly gendered. Particularly in trans people’s biological families, because they know you before and after your transition and are who you will always be tied to, familial dynamics are often complex. The emotional messiness and trauma of this particular experience felt overlooked in the play. The way that Charlie and Sam embrace specific performances of masculinity and femininity as a defence mechanism for their parental issues could have been an interesting dynamic to explore. But it was unexplained and meant that their gender felt like a perpetual elephant in the room. It read to me as a misappropriation of transgender bodies into a tale of cisgender grief. This is not to say that the play needed to be an exploration of gender, just that gendered dynamics have a definite impact on the way we grieve, so to ignore them, as this play does, comes across as missing the full potential of an important dimension of the central concern of the play.

Ambiguity in general does the script no favours. There is a recurring motif of cutting back to eulogies, but these were incredibly confusing and self-defeating. At first, I wasn’t sure if they were meant to be delivered to funeral attendees who knew the father or soliloquies meant to further explain the leads’ mindset to the audience. They also tended to not really elaborate on the siblings’ emotions. After each speech, I felt no closer to understanding the reasons why Sam and Charlie are grieving their father — especially because the play at one point explains the ingrained insincerity of eulogies. Further confusion was caused by the choice not to portray any side characters onstage, instead miming their presence. Though it emphasised the sibling’s dynamic, given that key plot points are discussed with the relevant people not present, it created unnecessary confusion.


Mountain View

Agamemnon has the gods on its side

This is not to say it was all confused. The live piano accompaniment, by Theo Horch, was inspired and added a sense of gravity and odd beauty to moments. Its restrained use allowed it to append real emotional poignancy. The lighting design, by Ruweena Perera, also added a gravitas to moments, with spotlights adding emphasis to the performances. And the set, designed by Lottie Wood, created a feeling of going back home after a very long time what with its use of older furniture and family photographs.

The play’s ending was fittingly, fairly abrupt. As I walked out I was left wondering whether the play’s unfocusedness is necessarily a bad thing. The ambiguities in the show could potentially resonate with a different audience member. But, when I think about my own experiences with grief, what strikes me most was the clarity with which I felt it. I knew exactly what I felt and why I felt it and that clarity is what made it so painful. This is why the muddiness of the play made its depictions of grief feel so uncanny. The play felt so unsure about itself that I left wondering what exactly it was trying to articulate about the grief the characters were enduring. Which meant that, at its close, I just wanted to emulate the characters and move on.

UnEarthed is playing at the Corpus Playroom from Wednesday 24th to Saturday 26th May, 9:30pm