I start listening to The You Play: small acts at bang-on 7pm. It is dark and rainy outside, and the light in my room is yellow. Katherine Parkinson, who narrates the play in a voice with a dark edge of mischief, asks in my ear if I want to wait until 16 minutes past the hour to begin. “That way, you’ll know there’s a chance that someone, somewhere, is doing it at the same time as you.” But I decide not to, because I’m planning to eat dinner afterwards and I don’t want it to get too late, and because I like the accidental neatness of having started at exactly 7pm, and possibly also because this past year has turned me into a bit of a misanthrope. I get tired when I’m in company now, after so long by myself, working from home; I still want to do some things alone.
Parkinson tells your story: ‘you’ are based very loosely on Leontes, the king in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Leontes mistakenly believes that his wife is adulterous; he accuses her and she collapses. Shortly afterwards, he hears that she has died. He lives alone and in mourning for 16 years. In the present day, 16 weeks ago, you had an argument with the person you loved. Maybe it was a misunderstanding, but anyway they left you and since then you have been alone. You have chosen to cut yourself off from the world: there is a park outside your window, but you rarely look out at it. (The pandemic and the lockdown sit at the edge, in the bleed lines, of the story. Maybe they’re the reason you don’t go outside much. Maybe that’s why you don’t want to get too close to another person. Maybe not, though. Maybe it’s just you.)
The distinction between the ‘you’ of the story and ‘you’, the listener, shifts in and out of focus, echoed by the buzz and hum of Dinah Mullen’s excellent sound design. Sometimes Parkinson gives instructions to you, the listener: feel your pulse in your wrist or your neck, turn the lights off, lie down like a 16-year-old lolling on summer grass. They are related to the narrative – or maybe it’s like they run parallel to it, like lines in Euclidean space: sharing the same plane but never exactly intersecting. I feel a little lonely, performing them. Sometimes Parkinson’s voice orders you to do things that you (the listener) can’t follow. The impossible demands of someone who feels obscurely guilty and angry at themselves, the internal voice of the you in the story: count every grain in a bag of rice, pluck out a hair from somewhere on your body, stop breathing.
There is a sweet, observant care in Rafaella Marcus’s writing, though, that does that trick of making you feel like the world is a little smaller and fuller than you had realised, that there is companionship somewhere in it. (Of a glass of water: “It’s a nice thing to have, isn’t it? Something free, that’s good for you.”) Jessica Lazar’s direction provides a nice foil to it. The occasional interpolated dialogues – two women arguing about their friend’s new relationship, a couple playing with their young son – sound like natural, everyday chat, but then they are also slightly estranged, made new, by Mullen’s cresting and falling sound in the background.
In the end, The You Play is about the possibility of making amends, of reversing past mistakes, of rebuilding your life and belonging to the world again. After 16 years alone, Leontes is given a statue of his wife, which then comes to life. They are reunited. There are other tales running through The You Play: the fairy tale of the brothers who were turned into swans, the legend of Percival and The Fisher King. In Marcus’s versions, they share the same central message: that things can be made right again. I wonder about this, a little: there is a moment near the start of the play that reminded me of Wallace Shawn’s monologue The Fever, about someone who becomes haunted by the force of the truth that their comfortable life is built on the exploitation of poorer people. In The You Play, a cup of coffee “smells of kids, working for $2 a day, on a dying planet.” I’m not sure how far small acts of kindness can atone for this, can right it. But the play still feels gently radical (if that’s a thing) in its optimism and its empathy, its faith in the possibility of redemption. It is beautifully done.
The You Play: small acts is available to listen to for free online, as part of a series by 45 North