Riffing on the archetypal myth of self-destructive infatuation, The Grand Scheme of Things sees Echo and Narcissus becoming stand-ins for the whole of humanity, discussing gender through the medium of a game of Truth or Dare. If it sounds like a clunky setup, it can feel that way at times, but the script, devised by performers Flora Marston and Nic McQuillan, is nonetheless rivetingly intense.
From the outset, there’s an unsettling undercurrent to the self-proclaimed Best Friends’ game of reciprocal intimacy. While Nic speaks freely, Flora can communicate only via powerpoint presentation, her words projected onto a screen behind them. Her responses hang in the darkness long after Nic moves on, seen but not heard. Sometimes they add a touch of humour. At other times they become stark reminders of the vast distance between two people’s perspectives, signs of the erosive cumulative impact of micro-aggressions, or suggestions of the rapid calculations a woman might have to make to ensure her safety in any given situation.
At one point, Nic describes a romantic picnic at the Grand Canyon, planned out in sumptuous detail. It’s going to be the perfect occasion to tell Flora about his feelings for her. Meanwhile, Flora worries about how she’d escape from the secluded spot if things went south. Nic, in turn, gets outraged that she’d even consider the possibility, triggering an all-too familiar cycle of shame and recrimination.
McQuillan is gripping throughout, a bundle of pacing, awkward energy and sudden emotional swerves, easy-going one moment, flying off the handle the next. As he reacts – so badly, so predictably – to Flora’s rejection, an edge of visceral viciousness starts to creep in. When he blames her for making him care for her, it’s a real accusation. When he vows he’ll fight for her affections, it’s an overt threat.
By contrast, Marston is a point of rigid stiffness on the stage, barely moving and – for the show’s first half – completely silent. Though her performance begins with marked subtlety, all glances and body language, it eventually – finally, fulfillingly – erupts into an explosion of pent up frustration as she climbs on the furniture and launches into a ferociously vivid monologue which charts a history of the victimisation of women through a deluge of mythological imagery – Medusa’s face streaked with tears and venom. Echo struggling under the weight of her own petrified bones. An allusion to Trump as a “piss-covered gargoyle” destroying women with a click of his tiny fingers like a tangerine-tinted Thanos.
Admittedly, the writing doesn’t always maintain that pitch and clarity. A tighter focus on a distinct plot might lend the conversation an even greater resonance. Grappling with loaded issues and embracing the fact that there are no easy solutions to deep-rooted problems, the show may never reach any definitive conclusion, but at its best, this is swaggering, galvanising, unflinchingly bold stuff.
The Grand Scheme of Things is on at Underbelly as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe, and runs until 25th August. More info and tickets here.