As I understand it, whether drama is chiefly a literary or visual artform is a question still up for debate. One person who has made his mind up, however, is Gary Henderson, whose 1994 play, Skin Tight, a close, visceral brawl of a play, runs at the Park Theatre as part of their inaugural season. And a staggeringly brave and thought-provoking revival it is too.
The play tells the story of Tom (John Schumacher) and Elizabeth (Angela Bull), a young farmer and his wife, whose passionate, animalistic love for one another bubbles over periodically into full-blown wrestles, slaps and fisticuffs as they reminisce about their lives together. Starting with remembered schoolyard habits and formative sexual experiences, the memories of things past stretch out to encompass that time Tom went off to war, and the time they inherited a farm only to surrender it to the mortgage men. As these memories stack up it becomes clear these characters – dressed in plain ‘40s or ‘50s garb – are not the literal representations of Tom and Elizabeth as human beings, but are a representation of their archetypes, their ‘true’ (or perhaps ‘truest’) selves. As such, rather than a documentary, the action of the play becomes a mythic retelling of a marriage. And it is at this point that something quite remarkable happen:Skin Tight stops being a story about these two people living in inter-war New Zealand, and instead becomes a physical poem about all love affairs, as special as they are commonplace, with their various vigorous and erotic highs and their mundane and everyday struggles.
The production isn’t perfect. The looped introductory projection of different sepia-toned photos has a touch of the DVD menu screen about it and far too often the dialogue falls back on cliché – Elizabeth’s description of the local lads signing up to go to War has more than a little Faulksian schmaltz about it, and the couple literally describe having ‘rolls around in the hay’. Indeed, some of the back and forth would seem positively studenty if it weren’t for the intensely fearless and honest performances given by both Schumacher and Bull.
Schumacher’s Tom is a rugged, quiet sort of bloke, dressed like he plays accordion in the Mumfords. Still, he manages to convey perfectly the slow, emasculating ebb of youth with a resolute and heart-breaking stoicism. He gives an unselfconscious but measured performance, somehow both strong and vulnerable at the same time.
Bull is equally impressive as Elizabeth. Her frequent violent outbursts and non sequitur Q&A sessions could make her totally infuriating, but in Bull’s hands she is grounded and vital, drawing out life and humour from the couple’s shared reminiscences.
What stood out the most, however, is just how fully each of the actors gave themselves to their role. This is an incredibly exposed and unflinching piece of theatre, which at times made for uncomfortable and voyeuristic viewing. The play is staged in the smaller of the two Park auditoriums, almost a studio space, and this intimacy is integral to the production, providing the audience the chance to see the sweat and the snot and the tears, not to mention the ruddy lumps and bruises on Bull’s knees and shins.
Of the tussles and trips, special mention should go to Dan Styles and Clare McKenna , the fight and movement directors respectively, who have given the play a genuinely raw and uncompromising edge. Jessamy Wilson-Pepper’s evocative set is equally good, being not much more than a simple iron bath and a few shrunken wooden planks suggesting a barn all overgrown and sprouting with poppies and weeds and wild flowers. The play is inspired by Denis Glover’s poem ‘The Magpies’ which shares the same characters and shows how the personal triumphs and tragedies of a human life are inconsequential to the seasonal habbits of the natural world. This feeling, I thought, was well echoed in those overgrown wildflowers, growing up brightly around the remnants of a farm and a life fallen into rack and ruin.
All in all this is a middling to good play turned into a great production thanks to the talent and dedication of a brave cast and under the clear and unfrilly direction of Jemma Gross. This could have been an excruciating disaster. As it is, it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking ode to love, sad, sweaty, horrible bloody love.