The smell of chalk has a particular effect on me. Call it a Pavlovian response, but chalk always awakens my inner goody-two-shoes. It makes my eyes bright and my back straight, it makes me want to observe, to nod vigorously, to stick my hand in the air and display how clever I am. Put me in front of a blackboard with the smell of chalk dust in the air and I am ready to LEARN. Which, on this particular night, in this particular theatre, is a fortuitous reaction. Bags, coats and distractions are collected at the door. We are seated center stage, a wide-eyed gaggle on gently revolving stools. The walls are chalkboards with the actors pinned against them, scrabbling and scrawling. We are pupils, studiously deconstructing acts of emotional violence, because debbie tucker green’s latest offering is a lesson in human connection.
Even the play’s mouthful of a title is didactic: a profoundly affectionate passionate devotion to someone (-noun) reads like the definition, the dissection, the examination of a thing, rather than the thing itself. In contrast to this educational remove, her text is visceral. No one captures the pattern of fractured speech quite like her. The words desperately spill over each other, falling somewhere between rap and poetry and a verbatim heartache.
A profoundly affectionate passionate devotion to someone divides itself across three duologues that add up to suggest some damaging, volatile and unreachable version of love. The first captures the relationship between Lashana Lynch and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, a love that is spat across the room over our heads, hurtling through break ups, make ups, children, anguish and arguments over volume and remote controls. Gary Beadle and Myra Syal together evoke the kind of beautiful bickering that embodies the best and most cantankerous of relationships, but their presence is criminally underdeveloped and underused. Beadle is given more scope in the play’s final movement, as he encourages an uncertain, flickering connection with Shvorne Marks that knits the play together, but it perhaps comes a little too late. Far too much of these searing performances is devoted to skulking cryptically about the stage, drawing symbols in the chalk that only serve to complicate rather than clarify.
There’s something thorny at the heart of this production. Some empty space between the stark, lyrical reality of tucker green’s words and the detachment of her production. The actors are wrenching, reaching, pouring their hearts out. We almost have to duck our heads to avoid the sharpness of their barbs. We avert our eyes to a kind of tenderness that seems invasive to look straight in the face. And here I am, puzzling over chalk circles like the protagonist in a Dan Brown novel. In the moments where they’re not performing, they stagger about the edges of the space in the faded comfies of the institutionalised, drawing, mumbling, like anomalies of feeling chosen for study. This problem is not helped by the fact that on press night, half of the audience are theatre critics, frantically scribbling notes of their own.
What I’m left with is the unsettling feeling of studying the alchemy of love like an academic. Disinfecting the mess and the muck of the characters and their unscramblable connections to one another, trying to make sense of something to which sense does not apply. And why? What is tucker green looking for in the space between the play’s raw emotion and the staging’s precise, clinical distance? In expressing the ill expressed, communicating the uncommunicated and speaking the unspoken, is debbie tucker green actually getting her message across?
For so much of a profoundly affectionate passionate devotion to someone, my inner Hermione Granger got the better of me. Blame in on the blackboards, but I spent more time trying to decrypt, decode and understand than I did trying to feel. And while there’s clearly a very human madness wrapped up in this production’s method, that’s a pity. Because here we have a writer digging deeper than most to reach something profound about what it means to love one another.
a profoundly affectionate passionate devotion to someone is on at the Royal Court until 1st April 2017. Click here for more details.