Five women waitingCharlotte Conybeare with permission for Varsity

When you walk into the Corpus Playroom, five women in white are waiting. For you? Not quite. They stare in turns vacant, expectant, bored - a flash of recognition - then… no, no, back to listlessness.

Then they speak, verbalizing their expectant gazes into a desire for a young man to return home, sharing memories which sketch out their relationship to this brother or son of theirs. They start and end the play on the precipice of something. In between, what happens? A lot and a little.

“They start and end the play on the precipice of something”

There are plenty of questions thrown up in Olivia Krauze and Aubin Ramon’s remarkable, original translation of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play. Yet there aren’t many clear or easy answers, and whether this beguiles or irritates depends on the type of theatregoer one is - the path one takes through the work is up to each individual.

The script is descriptive and elegant, carrying a poetic nuance that all the performers imbue with the appropriate heart, desire, and frustration. There is impressive vocal work across the board: Katya Stylianou precisely conveys all the nuance of her tired, aged mother; Maia von Malaisé’s detached remembrance is suitably steely and broken. Louisa Grinyer, though largely silent, conveys so much with her stricken doe-eyed innocence; looking at her family, her eyes brim with an unspoken hurt. Combined with committed physicality (they all remain on stage throughout), the cast deliver finely calibrated performances alive to the space they inhabit, and to each other.

Though the production doesn’t follow a neat narrative, its design offers much to appreciate. Tasteful lamps and washes of light both harsh and gentle (by Phoebe Morse) furnish a set meticulously designed by Rory Clarke and executed with aplomb by Filip Ayazi. They work together to create a lived-in space that is hiding something - the installed white door left slightly ajar, a sofa covered by red cloth, the black curtains restrained by rope - this is some of the most thoughtful set design I have seen in student theatre. There’s also a sink with running water, which is used to gesture towards ideas of cleansing and silencing. The water is one part of a complex soundscape - made up in part by the performers' beautiful voices; husky, full-throated, delicate voices, creating a natural harmony together with the buzz of the stage lights, percussive twangs, and the well-composed score (by Alex Wrathall) that occasionally overpowers the lines, but does underlay many moments with the suggestion (sometimes heavy-handed) of what stirs beneath the surface.

“Some of the most thoughtful set design I have seen in student theatre”

It’s in utilizing my limited French to read about the play afterwards that my attention is properly piqued. Lagarce died of AIDS just a year after his play’s 1994 premiere, and his work grew in popularity after his death. There’s something stirring about a play written so close to its writer’s passing. Was Lagarce reflecting on his own mortality? Perhaps my mixed feelings about the play result from its focus on the prodigal son - a concept which feels removed from my contemporary understanding of the world. Though I theoretically understand this trope, the production’s abstract approach to its themes do not help clarify why I should engage with or care about this man. A plot summary I find adds more retrospective insight: the character’s waiting is cyclical - potentially explaining the way they move between the same five positions on stage - and they apparently all yearn to leave their house. Perhaps the performer’s caressing of the room’s architecture is really more a clawing; when they touch each other, is it loving or does it show a fractured sense of care? I wish I had more help understanding these things in the theatre, if they were intended to echo through the work.

The directors have done well to punctuate the text with moments which enliven it - I was particularly taken by a burst of ecstatic dance set to an excellent Beyoncé needle drop. Near the end of the play, the women tidy up what little mess they have made, adjusting the pillows, running the tap in a futile attempt to cleanse. Despite all they have shared, they make little impact on the house. The young man sleeps, abuses, dies; inexorably damaging his family, yet he is not the one who puts things back in order. When I ask my viewing companion about her understanding of the play, she speaks of the link between repetition and trauma - how the key to understanding is going over things again and again. This only mystifies me further - what had I missed? It might be as simple as the fact that as a man, I could not fill in the gaps of the play with a personal understanding of female pain, so instead leant into the design and performance; still, I felt myself grasping around for something that wasn’t there.


Mountain View

A Profession of Faith is a work in progress

The night I saw the play it was raining outside. The directors write in their programme that the house is a “place where tragedy thrives in the incapacity to convey oneself”. Perhaps this is the key to unlocking the play - maybe the playwright does not want things to be known. But even when watching the play, as I consciously tried to stop searching for meaning, I lapsed into boredom. I’ve always struggled with this - if I walk away feeling empty, is that a fault of my own or the production’s? Anyway, is it so bad to walk away from an experience feeling empty? Certainly others have not.

The drizzle continues into the early hours. The next morning, the sun comes out. But I know, as I think the women do, that the sky will turn grey again. Yet they continue to wait, just for a momentary glimpse of sun. Knowing something good is coming alongside the bad, yet feeling helpless to escape. The women might never leave their house, but if they did manage to, would they prefer to go back and continue to wait? This production is a meaningful challenge - in staging and for its audiences. Whether you enjoy that challenge or not depends mainly on your capacity to throw yourself into the unknown, to listen closely and reflect on what you experience.