“To life, to life, l’chaim.” Robert stands baffled on his kitchen chair belting out lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof. He’s not a singer. Not even in the shower. This newfound musicality, his girlfriend suspects, is the result of something else: the dislocated soul of her late husband, a dybbuk, intent on making an involuntary Topol of her current boyfriend.
The supernatural laces its way through Samantha Ellis’ writing. This quarter of shorts also proves her point – discussed at greater length here – that the short play can also “be huge and voluptuous and intellectually rangy, at the same time as being lean and punchy, taut and fleet.” All together the four run to just three quarters of an hour and yet there’s an awful lot going on within these tiny plays: grief, love, and life – complex knotty ideas about identity and a dash of the uncanny. These supernatural undercurrents are most explicit in Unfinished, in which a couple have to deal with the returning presence of her dead spouse. The play manages to speak about what it is to begin to live romantically again after the loss of a husband while having a bit of dark strange fun with the idea of Jewish possession (it could have been worse, it could have been Yentl).
These plays while short are never slight; the way in which Ellis deploys detail is both elegant and effective, world building with a small nod here and a half-line there, trusting the audience to meet her in the middle. There’s a lot of humour in the writing as well as a vast amount of charm. The last of the four, the title play – about a woman with epilepsy slowly allowing herself to be loved, letting her walls drop and letting her new partner get emotionally closer to her – is given an extra layer of loveliness by the fact that the two characters are working backstage on a production of Mutiny! the musical.
Noura is the most grounded of the quartet, no witches, no spirits, but it too manages to unpack something complicated and intricate. Taking the form of a dialogue between a young half-Iraqi girl and her belly-dancing instructor, the play explores what it was to be from a place and how much of our identity comes from a sense of belonging, and how much of it we construct. It’s beautifully handled by Olivia Sweeney and Lydia King, the emotional terrain, the nature of their relationship, shifting several times over a brief span of time.
The opening play, Cat in a Sieve, demonstrates that the form is not limiting in terms of setting and scope, set in the reign of James, pitting the King against a ragged girl accused of witchcraft.
Ellis has a great sense of structure and shape and none of the plays hang around any longer than they need to in order to make their mark, to say their piece. While watching a series of shorts instead of a full length plays does require a small recalibration – and perhaps more could have been done with the transition between the pieces, to thread them together – this is a rich and ranging experience, more satisfying than many things double the length.