Robert Holman’s ideal play, as he says in this interview with Matt Trueman, would be “about a younger man and an older man sitting on a hillside, talking about the world and not getting up for three hours. Then, eventually, they get up and that would be the end.” In A Breakfast of Eels two half-brothers – an older and a younger man – chat, scene after scene, for around two and a half hours. The end. And it’s stunning. But I don’t quite know how to talk about it. Its meaning keeps floating away from me. Maybe it’s gossamer: delicate, but deeply resilient, catching the light in an infinity of ways to reveal different depths, different relationships and meanings. Maybe it’s music: lyrical and melodic, seemingly composed of one great cadence.
I don’t know. Every impression the play gives, the opposite is also true.
Penrose and his older brother Francis are waiting to go their father’s funeral in the first scene. They think they know each other completely. By the fifth scene, years have passed and they’re still trying to understand each other. In part that’s because over the course of the play both Francis and Penrose have changed and have had to work to find out what those changes meant. “You don’t know me as you think you know me,” Penrose says. “I change a little day by day, experience by experience, as we all do. I’m not quite the boy you think I am.” Whimsical Penrose (Matthew Tennyson) – infused with Sebastian Flyte-like childishness and charm – grows up while Francis (Andrew Sheridan) gradually sheds the thick skin he’s grown over the years and becomes a raw, vulnerable mess.
Penrose speaks like a child who’s been eating a dictionary, who loves the feel of words in his mouth. “I don’t know why I’ve not told you before, Francis, but I’m definitely not going to Daddy’s funeral. I understand it’s remiss of me. It just isn’t convenient today.” There’s a lightness in Tennyson’s voice, not necessarily high-pitched but completely devoid of the gruffness that’s in Sheridan’s. Holman wrote the play for these two, he asked them to suggest names and locations. It shows. The characters fit the actors like a tailored suit.
Although Francis has always looked after Penrose and protected him, now Penrose is determined to grow up, to understand his brother more fully and to look after him. Both want to be the responsible one. They are always opposing each other, being what the other one is not, perpetually sliding up and down on opposite ends of a seesaw. On one end, sometimes, is responsibility while on the other is reliance. Sometimes it’s misery and glee. Sometimes hardship and luxury. Parents and children. Love and hate. Guilt and acceptance. These characters are not simple – certainly not as simple as they seem at first. Just like Holman’s language, small series of simple words that hold immense power.
Holman shows what a fine, fine line it is between childhood and adulthood – between willing oneself to be responsible, or surrendering to that carefree stuff of childhood. Francis grew up by necessity, because of the horrific circumstances of his childhood. Penrose grows up by design, because he decides he should. They’re incrementally changing – growing or regressing – even as they just sit, in complete silence, and read on stage for about five minutes.
They live in their heads. Both make reference to outside lives (their friends or their pasts), and these outside lives inform the characters, but in a sense they don’t really matter. They help prolong the conversations, but their long, long exchanges are so self contained and solipsistic. They’re narcissistic, too, but that doesn’t really matter either because – on the stage, in the world Holman has created – all that exist are these two and so they can only ever be narcissistic. They are all that exist.
They’re at a second remove from instinctive reactions. They know exactly how to upset each other if they choose, but they also know when the tactic is being employed by the other. So they don’t shout, they rarely cry, they seldom get angry. All of these instincts are contained and restrained within the soft stichomythic speech. “I can’t find our relationship in a book” Penrose realises. They have that bond of brothers, a fraternal relationship that is – like all fraternal relationships – both unique and universal.
Except their knowledge of each other is born of instinct. Or maybe not instinct, but something deep-rooted. It’s not biographical knowledge (where Francis grew up and the small infinity of facts that has made up his life so far) but emotional knowledge. Love and trust. Penrose has never thought to ask Francis about his past because, before they were alone, before the safety net of mummy and daddy disappeared, that past didn’t seem to matter. Now, though, that each is all the other has suddenly there is this need to know each other even more.
In this bubble of a beautiful world, a pocket universe, Holman wields the immense power and staggering simplicity of words. Virgil, in the Georgics, created the enigmatic character of the Corycian Gardener, the agricultural hero who wants only to tend to his simple plot of land and never face up to the politics of life. He stands for the synthesis of labour and literature – the tension between these two characters. Penrose is bookish and his lines are peppered with unusual word choices. Francis feels most free in the hills of Northumbria, carving bows and arrows with his pocket knife.
I don’t know. There’s more to say, but I’ve said enough already. Besides, any meaning I think I’ve grasped just keeps slipping through my fingers, so I just don’t know.