Spanish philosopher George Santayana has been credited with the aphorism, ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. It is this warning that underpins Cordelia Lynn’s new play. Lynn is no stranger to penning works fraught with political tension; previous productions Lela and Co and One For Sorrow featured characters living with the aftermath of political and patriarchal violence. In Love and other acts of violence – a title I adore for its juxtaposing of tenderness and fear – Her, a young Jewish physicist (Abigail Weinstock) and Him, an activist poet (Tom Mothersdale) meet at a party and fall in love. This love, however, splinters and erupts into violence – as the society they live in does the same.
In Lynn’s own words, the setting is ‘roughly here, roughly now’, and the play opens at the party where they meet. Anonymous, muffled dance music thumps incessantly as a sweaty and probably drugged-up Him looms over Her, shouting in her ear about the unfair treatment of staff at the university at which they’re both postgrads. I feel the women in the auditorium collectively cringe, remembering our own experiences of strange men lacking physical boundaries and chewing our ear off about something we’re not interested in. Her is not repelled, though – bafflingly, she’s enticed.
We then follow the couple over a decade, and bear witness to how their union is impacted by both their conflicting worldviews and an increasingly volatile political climate in the world outside. In a style perhaps too reminiscent of Constellations, we are shown fragmented snapshots of their relationship – the good, the bad, and the downright ugly. Their dynamic is volatile, undulating sharply between tenderness and connection, and psychological and physical abuse (big props to fight director Yarit Dor – the most believable on-stage slaps I’ve yet seen). Elayce Ismail’s direction is razor-sharp, deftly highlighting the constantly shifting moods between the pair. These moments are interrupted by strange slow-motion movement and voiceovers that have no clear intention; perhaps they are in insight into Him’s less-than-impressive poetry? The rupturing takes place within Basia Bińkowska’s muted and fittingly bleak design, with a rectangular playing area of pale, knotted wood lending a sense of restriction and stagnancy: the couple cannot escape one another. Another identical rectangle looms ominously above. Piles of dark earth and grit surround the stage; sometimes these are walked into, or fallen into, or fought within, and bare feet are made unclean.
This dirt also serves as a symbol of the destruction and ruin that’s come before them and will come again – because this is not only a play about a relationship disintegrating. This is a play about history repeating itself, about violence repeating itself, about abuses against humanity repeating themselves. Him and Her carry a complex inherited trauma – we learn that both their families can be traced back to a Ukranian town where, in 1918, Jews were murdered at the hands of Polish soldiers. This discovery gives license to more cruelty, as well as a jarring sexualisation of one another’s oppression as they hurl racial slurs at one another. Her is quick to acknowledge that, as Him’s family descends from Poles, it’s unlikely they would have been friendly.
Lynn has thoughtfully crafted two complex, flawed, and at times deeply unlikeable characters, whose choices can be mystifying and whose relationship I don’t quite believe. Weinstock and Mothersdale give gripping performances in the roles, and particularly Weinstock in her professional debut imbues Her with something both tantalising and sinister. As atrocities outside escalate to a frightful climax – punctuated hauntingly by sound design from Richard Hammarton – we are taken suddenly to another world that unflinchingly confronts us with the horror of historical antisemitism. With this comes a brief but tender and moving stint from Richard Katz.
It’s true that Love and other acts of violence addresses a specific and unspeakably terrible moment in history. Despite this, the ‘roughly here, roughly now’ world of the play, plagued by police brutality, abuse of marginalised communities, and corrupt political practices could, sadly, be about anywhere, at any time. This feels like a particularly pertinent return for the Donmar in light of the UK’s increasingly hostile political climate. This is, ultimately, a brutal production with barely a glimmer of hope. It speaks to me as a warning, and I’m left with the uneasy feeling that, if change doesn’t come soon, this could be the terrifying not-too-distant future our society is sleepwalking into.
Love and Other Acts of Violence is on until 27th November 2021. More info and tickets here.