‘If you’re really lucky, you get to be onstage and say things that are absolutely true, even if they’re made-up.’
‘There are substances I can put into my bloodstream that make the world perfect.’
Having previously enjoyed Jeremy Herrin’s the spell-binding ‘The Nether’ (Royal Court, Duke of York’s theatre) , 1984,and the RSC’s versions of Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’/ ‘Bringing up the Bodies’, the motivation to see another Headlong production was strong.
The title comes from the AA creed that alcoholics are powerless over the ‘people, places and things’ that cue their desire for drink or drugs so the prescription is a 12-step recovery i.e. the avoidance of People with whom you use drugs, the Places where you score and use and the Things that act as a trigger to use.
From the outset, it is clear that Duncan Macmillan’s play is about reality and how we make our own reality. It opens with a scene from Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ with the actress, ‘Emma’, playing the forlorn Nina at breaking point. Thus the message of disintegrated hopes is enacted at the start, introducing us to Emma’s thespian ‘other-life’ , referencing troubled themes in plays by Ibsen and Chekhov.
There’s a reason for the blurring of identity: Emma is an alcoholic, suffering from multiple substance abuse, which has led to blackouts and one suicide attempt. Soon she checks herself into a rehab centre to undergo the detox regime but she doesn’t buy into her perceived bogus beliefs of the AA-style journey to recovery. From the start, the self-absorbed, self-pitying and deceitful Emma lies constantly and admits to telling lies and thus prevents us from surrendering our sympathy to her. Her risk assessment involves not being resistant to the clinic’s culture of sharing and honesty, but by the second act, she gives herself to it.
The production is held by Emma’s performance from beginning to end. ‘And one man in his time plays many parts’. The play takes on a surreal dimension as we are drawn into the addict’s world: at first when Foster (Alistair Cope) is seen in duplicate; the use of toxic, nightmarish projections and a choreography of Emma’s doppelgangers to suggest her fracturing mental state during withdrawal. Jeremy Herrin’s arresting staging (a co-production with Headlong) takes Emma’s perspective. Bunny Christie’s sterile, stark white-tiled walls institutional trapezoid traverse set contains hydraulics that pulls scenes apart like a confused mind. The shattered tiled video projections by Andrzej Goulding prove integral to Emma’s altered states.
Denise Gough is quite extraordinary as the central character, The Seagull’s Nina, to Hedda Gabler, to Blanche DuBois. She helps drive a high energy production and convincingly so. At times it does feel like a one woman show. Barbara Marten shines too in the triple role of her doctor, her calm, astute psychotherapist and careworn, hostile mother. Nathaniel Martello-White’s, Mark, on his third attempt to get clean conveys a brutal honesty about the pitfalls of success. As a foil to Emma, he demolishes her elaborate self-delusion.
From the outset, nothing is certain. The doctor (Barbara Marten) shocks us with a stool sample in a kidney shaped medical plastic container which she takes a bite out of. It’s her falafel lunch!
There are some wonderful comedic clipped lines: Why, Gough asks, does she have to say “Amen” at the end of a wish for change? The answer is: ‘It’s like pressing ‘’Send’’ on an email.’ Despite the black humour, we are brought back sharply into Emma’s nightmarish world.
Without doubt, there, is a clever parallel between rehab and theatrical process; the highs and lows and the level of exposure that can become decentring and self-destructive.
There are problems, though with this play: other characters are sketchily drawn. The purpose of the play is unclear, mainly because it addresses too many themes: drugs, theatre, family and God all have a place in here. Whilst I applaud the difficult questions raised by Duncan Macmillan about addiction and recovery, more is gained from broader questions about the pros and cons of role-play and how dispiriting it is to be out of work. For me, Emma’s internal rehabilitation wasn’t convincing.
Trust is a driving force in the process to discovery so the anticipated neat fairy-tale ending of acceptance and forgiveness thankfully never comes .The parents, Barbara Marten( playing her mother)r and Kevin McMonagle (playing her dad)cannot forgive and forget as memories of their daughter’s betrayal are too raw. This is a scene we have already witnessed, pre-enacted in therapy but the reality here provides a more subtle critique of the closed conditions under which therapy operates. Flawed as the play is, it is an intellectual thrust into the world of therapy. Yet unhealthily, we are left in a state of relapse; with a more troubling benzodiazepine-like notion of our 21st Century continued dependence on therapy.