Howard Jacobson has an essay, ‘The Life Pursuit’, in the anthology Everything You Know Is Pong: How Table Tennis Shapes Our World in which he writes about the relationship between table tennis and defeat. It’s not winning that counts, Jacobson argues, or even taking part, but losing. It’s not about working out how to beat your opponent but finding and testing your own limits. The essay ends:
“There is always one more point to replay in our imaginations, always one more question to ask. The game is never quite over because we cannot decide who really won, and we cannot decide who really won because we are still pondering the nature of victory.”
A Table Tennis Play, the first play from Walrus since their debut Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons in 2016, similarly ponders the nature of victory and defeat. Sam Steiner’s stunning script asks us: what are we after when we speak? And, what do our words do to get us there, or to stop us? Like Jacobson’s table tennis games, the threat of less sits constantly behind each conversation, almost terrifyingly close. Each character’s longed-for ‘victory’ comes most sharply focus when they’re on the brink of losing it; what those victories are can change in a sentence, in a gesture or a pause.
The plot itself concerns couple Cath (Rosa Robinson) and Callum (Euan Kitson), who are sorting through the inheritance of clutter left by Cath’s grandma in a bunker in the garden of Cath’s family home. The delicate balance of their relationship is shifted by Mia, the house’s current resident and a young tennis player on the first rungs of the professional circuit.
Dominating the stage throughout is a huge, green ping-pong table, whose parameters and rules assert a kind of index for the play’s other actions. It’s like the key to the map that tells us what all the different colour lines mean, including in its boxiness. Each utterance is revealed to be a new ‘play’, a serve or volley or a slipping between the lines. Questions come to feel like a certain kind of shot, always played with different spin: one can be a deflection, or a hidden attack, or a hopeful reaching. Certain lines shoot desperately into nowhere, floating mid-air before we see whether they’re in or out. Certain information hits its target like a slam, its spin unknown until it bounces.
All this risks making A Table Tennis Play sound like a high concept piece, like Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons before it. But it’s not, really. Walrus’s second play is surprisingly formally traditional, and its success – its splendour – comes from Steiner’s mastery of two old fundamentals: dialogue and character. Each line of Steiner’s script holds tremendous jeopardy. It is rarely dense in its language or imagery, but instead words feel like the most visible matter that protrudes from the surface of deeper thought and relevance. Characters’ pasts and desired futures stand murky but pressing, urgently present behind each utterance. Steiner’s language always does more than it actually says, and more than each protagonist realises.
And it matters because the characters matter. Under Ed Madden’s carefully worked direction, and through three excellent performances, we can see each one in vivid clarity – both what they look like to themselves and to the others. We care about them and want (need) to see what they say next. Beth Holmes as Mia in particular is a revelation: her subtle ticks of speech and expression reveal a character at once timid and uncomfortably forward. We long for her to make the connection that she wants to towards Cath and Callum, squirm when she finds defeat, revel in her victories, even whilst we grimace at her underlying menace. Likewise, Euan Kitson’s insistent, urgent performance, especially of Callum’s final monologue, claims our fullest attention, each word and hesitation a souvenir that drags with it a trail of memory for him and Cath.
A lot happens in pauses too, in the spaces where opponents size each other up or choose what to say next or wait to see where the last utterance or gambit lands.
Of the many scripts I’ve seen performed at the Fringe in the last few years, this is the one I most want to go away and actually read. I want to see the intricacies of Steiner’s back-and-forth, the position of each shot and volley. It’s got stuck there in my head somewhere, demanding to be revisited, always one more point to replay in my imagination, always one more question to ask.
A Table Tennis Play is on at Underbelly at 12.30pm until 25th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.