Relationships are an act of myth-making. You find someone, and together you knit a story out of scraps of paper, love letters, flowers and all the usual debris associated with falling in love. The history of my relationship is mapped out in food and drink: the Michelin star meal where we skipped out on the bill, the first pancake I actually managed to flip over in the pan, declaring our love in a bar that charged €2 for drinks and then stumbling home at 3am to make quesadillas. This is the lot you choose when you fall in love with a chef, I suppose.
But what happens when one of you loses that mythology? When the building blocks of your relationship begin to crumble underneath your feet? This is the question In Other Words seeks to explore. Here, Arthur and Jane’s love affair is one punctuated with music – specifically the lovesick croonings of Frank Sinatra. He’s there when they first meet, he’s there when they laugh and reminisce and when they cry. His music is the shorthand they use to define the life they’ve built together, and in this production, he is their final refuge in the face of a crushing, inescapable reality.
The relationship that is the heart, soul and lifeblood of the play is rendered with a tenderness and intimacy that reflects the warmth of The Hope Theatre’s space. Having young bodies represent the old on stage is a move that often sits uneasily with me but Celeste Dodwell and Matthew Seager are earnest in their exploration of love, grief and pain. Their performances have less to do with physical deterioration than with rebuilding, preserving in amber the versions of themselves that these characters wish to be remembered as.
Much of Seager’s performance seems to come down to the desperate act of reaching, as Arthur’s memory begins to fail him. For most of the play he dangles on the edge of a precipice, scrabbling for dear life. What’s at stake is clear – Arthur is flailing to preserve not just his memory or even his sanity but his mythology, the parts of him and Jane that are irrevocably entwined. The production’s design reflects this beautifully. In the moments where Seager’s control flickers, I found myself clinging to its detail – the wattage of the lamplight, the texture of the carpet, the scratches on the armchair. The transience of memory becomes treacherous, and the only way to survive is to record, madly, desperately, every last second. To all this, Dodwell is expected to bear witness.
But whose story is it? In the play’s moments of mundane forgetfulness, the misplacing of keys and squabbling over milk, you could be forgiven for assuming the narrative was Arthur’s: the epic tale of one man’s struggle against illness set against the shrill expectations of an unfeeling wife. But Dodwell’s gut-punch of a performance startles. Beginning as a coquettish adornment to Arthur’s story, Jane becomes full throated in the face of crisis: “He can be so unkind,” she reels, an implosion of heartache as parts of her evaporate along with her lover’s mind.
Seager’s script, too, cleverly subverts, punctuating the story of Arthur’s demise with scenes where the horror is allowed to fade away. Seager provides his characters with quiet moments, to dance and laugh and to reflect. Together they craft the narrative and stitch together a new myth about the illness itself, one founded in pain and loss and Frank Sinatra. One gets the sense that this re-enactment of the heartache is therapeutic – something these characters must do to regain control of that which threatened to erase them.
And in the end, it is Sinatra that always brings them back. They find ever-diminishing solace in him, pinpricks of light in a smothering darkness. When all hope seems lost his refrain produces a reprieve: a fractured memory, a wavering smile that seems to knit the broken pieces back together again. Indeed, maybe it’s there, somewhere between the flute and trumpets, that the couple find that liminal space, where they’re allowed to rebuild the story that destroyed them. There’s a magic in this myth-making. I cry, and go home and ask my boyfriend to make quesadillas with me.
In Other Words is on until 18th March 2017 at the Hope Theatre. Click here for more details.