Darkness. The sounds of an explosion, screaming, gunfire. A whispered monologue. Cordelia Lynn’s One For Sorrow makes me realise that I am not often scared in the theatre. Not since I saw The Woman in Black for my 14th birthday and that was more of a jumpy fear, like a horror film. This anxiety collects on the skin like sweat and trickles down the weeping walls of Laura Hopkins’ set design.
“My shows are the opposite of safe spaces”, Taylor Mac recently declared in an interview. What does it mean for theatre to be a safe space? A space to debate and consider different ideas, away from the pressures of everyday life? What does it mean for theatre to make you feel unsafe? At the bus stop after, almost home, my sister taps me on the shoulder. I do not expect her. “Hello”, she says. “I thought you were going to mug me”, I reply.
One For Sorrow is about being afraid and feeling safe. It’s about how feeling comfortable and feeling safe don’t always align. One For Sorrow takes the middle class family home – the archetypal theatrical safe space in twentieth-century British theatre – and exposes its edges. It reminded me a bit of Blasted, which demolishes the hotel wall to let the civil war raging outside in. Lynn’s explosion happens before the play starts – a terrorist attack on a nightclub and concert venue, but the atrocities permeate the domestic space through the background hum of live news reporting, through the iPhones sisters Imogen and Chloe clutch in their hands like lifelines, and through characters coming into the living room to give an updated body count.
With Pinteresque precision, Lynn and director James Macdonald chronicle subtly shifting dynamics that transform the home from a safe space to a space of danger. The catalyst is the arrival of John, in response to Imogen offering up their home as a refuge on Twitter, without her parents’ consent. The outsider comes in, disrupting both the family’s conception of themselves as “good people” and Imogen’s yearning to believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity.
Lynn’s play is dense with ideas and the debate is not always clear. Conversations circle round ideas of safety, freedom of speech, violence, order, society. There is a generational divide between Imogen and Chloe, schooled in internet activist groupthink, and parents Emma and Bill, complacent in their life experience and property-owning. They are all convinced they are right. At one point Chloe declares, “I think, objectively, the right things”, justifying the deaths of people who do not think the right things, of people who do not think like her. But, as the play shows, saying “the right things” in no way guarantees that people will do the right things.
Pronouns become slippery, seized as devices to apportion blame. Us vs them. Us vs the racists and terrorists whose fault it is. Eventually, in the play’s ever-constricting net of individualism, “us” breaks down to “me”. Imogen, devastatingly performed by Pearl Chanda, sits hunched on the floor, impassive as images of violence are projected around her. She desires radical vulnerability, to “hold you closer and closer and never let you go never let you go until you’re part of me until you just bleed into me until the defining lines between you and me are just – / Until you are me.”
Yet Imogen’s idealism is not vindicated by the play. Indeed, it actively endangers John, with whom she starts the frisson of a relationship. They cut themselves on the edges like a rusted tin can or barbed wire or words which do not mean the same thing to other people. They cut themselves on difference. Are edges necessary for safety? Does our need for safety create edges, borders, barbed wire? Emma reminds her daughter, “Just be sure to protect yourself. From the danger. The ones that kill.” Just because fear is in our heads does it make it any less real. Or less wrong.
A man sits outside Sloane Square Station. “Can you help me?” he asks.
One for Sorrow is at the Royal Court until August 11th. For more details, click here.