The Gate kicks off its ‘Who Does She Think She Is?’ season with a play that, on the surface at least, seems to ask that question with moustache-twitching, un-ironic fervour. A self-important woman (Woman? Girl!) who can’t act for prize toffee struts her hour on her private school’s stage as she puffs up the everyday inconveniences of the growing process into pseud-y proportions and overestimates the iniquity of every man she meets. The centre of her own melodramatic universe, a 21st century Catherine Morland in a modern-day Northanger of motels and morning sickness. Fuck that noise, right?
Actually, sort of right. It doesn’t help that a dude wrote it (Adam Rapp) and another dude has now directed it (Chris Haydon) or that the whole thing is essentially a miniature tribute to another dude’s theatrical universe and one play in particular (Jean Genet and his Maids). Here we have the interior world of a young woman thrice-mediated by men (four-times, at least, by the time you get to this review).
And yet The Edge of Our Bodies so often succeeds against these odds, opening like a spar box from creepy-Carollian gloom to a lapidary fierceness, speaking with intelligence and humanity to the infinity-mirror of the masculine gaze that it (self-knowingly) seems to represent.
The opening tableaux is practically a schematic of Western moneyed pederasty.A young girl in a schoolgirl blazer and knee-highs sits on a too-tall stool in a boudoir of Victoriana, ringed with phallic flowers stalked by mists that rise from a heaving, grave-like substrate. The letters ‘Whitney Academy’ are picked out in gilt above her. She reads haltingly from her diary, about a journey into New York taken alongside the gestating aftermath of a first flare of adult passion.
Bernadette is smart, and in the privacy of her diary she’s eloquent and self- possessed. The story she tells is ostensibly one of self-realisation, of a journey and the loss of a first love, of coming to terms with the choices available to her as an adult, and of discarding story-book optimism for a tougher, more complete understanding of the ugliness and the beauty of the world.
It’s also, like so many gothic tales before it, about Bernadette’s relationship with men, and with the idea of men. On her first train journey they stand around her in presumed predation – she suspects the worst, she readies herself for their advances. She’s been prepared by her father’s infidelities, perhaps, or by her friend’s affair with an aging teacher. But the men she meets, the dying father century Catherine Morland in a modern-day of her absent boyfriend Michael, the considerate but herpes-ridden bar-room pick-up, ultimately refute these suspicions by revealing a depth which she had hitherto been unable or unwilling to observe.
If these encounters and perceptual revisions were the point, Rapp’s work would be a strange and insufficient one. As a document of male loneliness and humanity it would be utterly obliterated by a play like Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities, which not only later scorched the same ground but did so without using an assumed female perspective as a stalking horse while also providing a near-violent answer to the vital questions ‘So what? And what now?’
But like any Gothic, The Edge of Our Bodies is also about death and, more crucially, about power. The men Bernadette meets are described almost exclusively in terms of decrepitude and disease. From the leering faces on the train, which seem to age before her eyes as they move deeper into the city, to Michael’s father who emits a sudden stinking premonition of mortality mid-conversation, to the dark and poisonous cock tugged in her direction in a Chinatown motel, everywhere men are the threat of death and decay. Even the lascivious Hockey Coach is made revolting by the tufts of hair which emerge from the neckline of his polo shirt. The only chord of male beauty, played with an adolescent durdling in his absence, is Michael’s perfectly hairless, perfectly perfect chest, but even that is eventually revealed to be the product of labour artifice – another illusion.
If Bernadette obsesses on the bodily, her conversation with Michael’s father and her own contemplation of her own body and her relationship with her nascent pregnancy, suggests a state of being just outside and beyond it. Rapp’s linking of these concepts with the falling of snow, the changing of seasons and the russeting of leaves can feel laboured, but they’re always appropriately so, They are part of Bernadette’s sometimes naïve internal universe. And that ‘sometimes’ is a vital one. Like Claire and Solange in the Genet, Bernadette may live in a fantasy world, and create fantasy rebellions as she throws chairs around the stage and lets her hair down to Sleigh Bells, but she’s also essentially correct, or at the very least on the right track. The voices she ventriloquizes so gauchely were also too self-absorbed to act, but the action they pantomimed against an oppressive social system was an admirable one – it was a revolutionary step. Bernadette may find her expectations about men corrected by reality, but the reality is that those expectations are valid. They are the only expectations the world she exists within can ever hope to foster.
These are themes emphasised by Haydon and designer Lily Arnold, who have ramped the gothic up to 11 in their gruesomely picturesque production. Bernadette is reflected everywhere, in grimy distorting mirrors. Her growth into adulthood is constantly overlooked and reflected back at her – she is totally open for examination and forced into self-examination. Her vanity and the vanity of her ideas is responsive to the patriarchal diorama that is the boundary of her life.
Shannon Tarbet is mesmeric as Bernadette, balancing keenly observed naturalism with a hint of the otherworldly and occasional flecks of danger or fear. Haydon’s production occasionally runs into rhythmic sameyness, as the build and release structure becomes predictable before the final moments, but in finding the sickly-sweet-spot between the modern and the ickily antique, it also amplifies the more baroque strengths of Rapp’s script. If anything, Haydon has pushed The Edge of Our Bodies further from the precipice of naturalism, and in doing so has found answers, or partial answers, to its most problematic aspects. It’s far from perfect, it’s riddled with knots, but it’s a fascinating piece that deepens and darkens as your eyes adjust to its dimensions and gothic shades.