Daniel and Nadia’s extramarital affair is dictated by rules. Eleven rules, to be precise, written formally by Nadia on a piece of paper, and designed to separate their weekly sexual encounters from the rest of their lives. Only meet in the flat. No outside communication. Only meet on Mondays. No ‘I love you’s’. No mention of kids or spouses. Their excitement comes from bending or breaking the rules (probably the same excitement that initially kindled their passion), but it strains their meticulously set boundaries and allows their external, ‘other’ lives to seep in.
In our current landscape of atomised living where everything feels so separated, even when it’s branded as a new form ‘connectedness’, Kenny Emson’s new play Rust is compelling for looking at the effects of such compartmentalisation. We don’t see their kids, their wives, Daniel’s clock repair business, or Nadia’s corporate drinking pals. We watch the relationship evolve in episodes that only occur in the flat Nadia rents for both of them, their aliases on the contract Mr and Mrs White. It’s delineated, safe, and sometimes sexy, but it’s also clearly unsustainable. And that’s why Daniel and Nadia, nicely portrayed by Jon Foster and Claire Lams, both buckle in their own ways to the emotional pressure of having two separate, but obviously connected, lives.
And yet Rust falls short of capitalising on the richness of its context. Moving at a surprisingly sedate pace, it’s almost stymied by its repetitive formula of discrete naturalistic scenes separated by blackouts symbolising that time has passed. Lams and Foster do have strong chemistry and manage to inject an intimacy and energy in their initial encounters. But within a steady and unchanging format, the increasing turbulence that Nadia and Daniel both feel is seriously dampened. Of course, the repetitive, bordering-on-banal quality of a longer term relationship is worth examining, and perhaps most particularly in a play like this (after all, it’s what Nadia and Daniel are trying to escape from). But the theatrical form establishes itself as a rule. And like Daniel and Nadia, we as an audience enjoy it when rules are broken.
Max Johns’s design centres on a bed teeming with pillows. It’s almost impossible to quell the impulse either to dive into it or have a pillow fight. Luckily Foster and Lams do both throughout the play, and symbolically it works at first: the bed is a warm, enticing, comforting space that clearly designates their sex and privacy while keeping the world at bay. But as the flat becomes more furnished and the bed evolves into a different site of symbolic meaning, not much changes onstage to reflect the transformation. Hanging vertical lights upstage alter the mood, but there’s a lack of visual intrigue to break up the sequences of bedroom antics.
Kenny Emson’s writing does at times perceptively show that splitting one’s life is not so easily done. Just after a critical moment when Nadia and Daniel are forced to contemplate their shared future, Nadia reverses her opinion on which part of her life feels the smallest, and which makes her feel most trapped. Here Lams is all business. She’s brusque and clenched, performing an air of certainty while also betraying her doubt. It’s contrasted with Foster’s Daniel, whose matter-of-fact personality means such emotional u-turns are harder to make. That’s the trouble with having a divided life: with a vantage point that is constantly shifting, it gets harder and harder to remember where you’re even standing, what rules you are breaking.
As Rust moves towards its climax, scenes meander without conviction. From the beginning, Nadia and Daniel’s relationship seems destined either to peter out, or to grow so much that it razes the structures they’ve put in place. In effect, it sort of does both, but neither one completely. While suggesting rather high stakes for both characters, the fall-out feels neither revelatory nor fundamentally life-changing for either character. Rules are re-established, lives continue, and it’s hard to gauge how much, if anything, has changed.
Rust is on at Bush Theatre till 27th July. More info here.