Grid Iron’s production of Ella Hickson’s new play gives us a glimpse into the mind of fictional playwright Kate Bane as she energetically types-up the history of her own, imagined, family drama.
Hickson’s exercise in metafiction is a convincing, entertaining and philosophically suggestive piece of writing. Kate, visiting her divorced father for a dinner with her partner Albin, passionately wants to become an ‘honest’ writer in light of her sense that the last play she wrote, an attempted satire on the bourgeoisie, failed to elicit any opposition from its intended target. She is frustrated by her creative-writing-teacher father’s comments about bourgeois writing – ‘[the middle classes] never have anything really interesting to say for themselves’ – and when her highly theatrical old-moneyed mother Nessa arrives, the outward appearance of civility all but breaks down into bitterness, antagonism and ridiculous bawdery. The action centres around conversations about the past, writing, the science of memory (Albin is a neuroscientist), class and hypocrisy.
In between scenes taking place in her father’s house, Kate-the-writer paces energetically around the thrust stage, taking boxes from a bookshelf wall, opening them, rooting through, finding heirlooms that are emotional keys to the drama that is unravelling in her mind, and then typing.
Kate is writing a past that never happened; and what we are watching, simultaneous to the embedded story of a 30 year old woman’s emotionally regressive identity crisis (the subject of writer-Kate’s play), is a dramatisation of her creative decision-making process. So characters are often larger-than-life, yet sometime naturalistic, sometimes clowns-like, sometimes freezing and repeating lines as she re-writes how they would act in a certain situation. Writer-Kate’s struggle for emotional and social honesty is, she seems to realise, one that requires a compromise with the inherently subjective and presentist nature of memory; and the play that she writes is one about a writer who must learn to let go of their obsession with truth.
The cast is excellent, able to communicate the difference between the psychological spaces that they are inhabiting (in writer-Kate’s imagination) through their mastery of movement. The set retains a strong singular identity throughout (as Kate’s private office), but lighting and sound combine with the actors’ performances to foreground the different ‘lights’ and moods by which Kate envisions realities past and present.
The hypocrisy of liberal bourgeois baby-boomers and the emotional effects of their behaviour on their offspring is a bold and refreshing theme. Discursively, character-Kate is situated perfectly between a father who denies his working class origins and an upper-class mother who rails against bourgeois institutions such as marriage and mocks her ex-husband for the way he climbed the social ladder (‘worked hard?… [he] fucked hard!’). Kate’s conflicting drives towards and away from left-wing aesthetics and lifestyles also speaks of the Scottish literary scene’s arguably uneasy relationship with the middle class experience as a subject for art. That Hickson embeds her ‘honest’ exploration of such themes within a piece of metafiction enables her, at the close of the play, to twist the subject of the ‘real’ play (that is, the one outside of the one that Kate is writing) towards the younger generation’s, not so harsh, gaze on their literary and theatrical progenitors – Kate’s parents steal the last scene magnificently.
This is a fascinating production to watch and, moreover, to remember because many of the ironies of the play come to our awareness later. The only dip comes in the play’s climax – when Kate and Albin are confronted by Kate’s full-blown, tutu-clad, pony-tail sporting, meltdown complete with a truly awful speech – and yet this is also the pinnacle of Hickson’s wit because it is not her writing but a representation of Kate-the-writer’s creative voice, one that Hickson must distance from her own in order to avoid the pitfall of self-referentiality or over-earnest sentimentalism.