The relationship between therapist and patient is one that many playwrights have been drawn to, but in Iain Finlay Macleod’s intriguing and unsettling two-hander the therapy sessions become the basis for something far more unusual. The exchanges take place in a dreamlike yet at the same time recognisable world and the play itself takes the form of a short yet engulfing dive into a deep pool of philosophical uncertainty.
Inspired by the works of Jorge Luis Borges, the play takes place in a world where there is only one language and there is a Library which contains every book ever written. Set entirely in the therapist’s office, Macleod’s intelligent script initially dances around ideas of sanity and fantasy. A is a lonely young woman who feels that her life is out of her control. She tells her therapist, B, about a book she has discovered in the Library that contains her entire life, written out in perfect detail. There are only a handful of pages left. Her sceptical and vaguely impatient therapist suggests that she writes in a few pages of her own.
Audience members well versed in psychology might knowingly nod their heads at this point, expecting a gradual deconstruction of A’s unstable mental state, but Atman is about so much more than the human mind. While Macleod clearly has a good grasp of psychology, his play is also concerned with ideas of divinity and predestination, the relationship between action and consequence, the power of fiction, the possibility of immortality and the nature of reality itself – to name but a few.
Running at a taut 50 minutes, Macleod’s play is the dramatic equivalent of a perfectly formed short story: punchy, evocative and meticulously crafted, while managing to wrestle with weighty ideas. The dialogue is consistently witty, delivered in a convincing tug of back and forth by actors Lucy Griffiths and Matthew Spencer, as they question all the concepts that we take for granted. Is a chair really a chair? Would calling it by a different name transform its nature? Language is another essential facet in a play that prods at the relationship between words and their meaning, a process made ever more fascinating by the fact that the production we are seeing is in itself a translation from the Scots Gaelic original.
As A begins to push the boundaries of accepted reality further and further by writing her own future, Griffiths brings a frenetic luminosity to this dangerously self-absorbed character. Perpetually fiddling with her hands and her dress, there is a wildness to her performance; she manages to be both sweetly fragile, manipulative and vain. This is balanced by the calm exasperation of Spencer as her therapist, a man who becomes gradually more dishevelled and desperate as events escalate.
Jacqui Honess-Martin’s production is satisfyingly tense, a quality intensified by Tim Middleton’s atmospheric soundscape and the claustrophobic surroundings of the Finborough’s tiny performance space. In a play that is nearly all talk, Honess-Martin manages to create a sense of action, although the abstract movement that she has employed to link the scenes feels largely superfluous.
Ultimately, Macleod’s play asks more questions than he could ever possibly answer. Those looking for resolution may leave unsatisfied, but Atman’s disturbing deconstruction of fiction and reality remains a relentlessly compelling ride. Much like the books that it takes as its subject, Macleod’s play achieves the benchmark of great fiction by lodging itself immovably in the mind.