Will Eno’s Title and Deed, which played last year’s Edinburgh Festival exactly ten years after his previous festival success, Thom Pain (based on nothing), is, like its predecessor, a one man show with very little in the way of stage set or, indeed, what one might describe as narrative. Both productions featured memorable performances by James Urbaniak and Conor Lovett displaying confidence in playing characters who are constantly uncomfortable in their own skin, uncomfortable with language, making some kind of begrudging peace with it.
With Urbaniak giving body and voice to Eno’s work, Thom Pain felt very New York. Here was this guy in a slightly crumpled black suit, lighting up a cigarette. There was something of the Wall Street refugee about him but he was still a man of the city with an anxiety that had a particular urban quality to it. Conor Lovett’s character, ten years later, has a more timeless quality to him perhaps, carrying a holdall and wearing clothes that are generic and slightly ill-fitting. While Urbaniak played the man who belongs but does not feel at ease, Lovett is, if you believe him, at ease in his not being from here. He tells us that he’s going to assume that we are because it’ll make things easier.
This isn’t going to be easy though. Eno’s writing always hints at something that is just beyond: that thought that trails off; that moment of excitement that is suddenly dissipated and you can only assume it wasn’t all that exciting after all as it vanishes into the ether. Performance and direction give the script the space it needs to breath. Eno takes everyday phrases and twists them inside out until they are unrecognisable and Lovett gives the audience the room it needs to see these. As we sit there and try to make sense of where he might be from, making patterns, searching for the easy allegory, Lovett is looking right back at us, also searching. He seems to be hoping he’ll find the answer to his questions in our faces. When he doesn’t, he doesn’t seem crushed. It’s a disappointment perhaps but one that’s to be expected.
Memories of the man’s past, back home, over here, flit in and out of the monologue. They aren’t wrought to have any kind of arc. They are anecdotes perhaps or love affairs that had beginnings middles and ends without any moments of great conflict. Everything fizzles out with a wimper, as does the piece itself. This is the curious thing about both this and Thom Pain for me. The writing and the performances are beautiful, extraordinary. In many ways, there’s hardly a playwright today who does language better than Eno. But I come away from the experience, entirely unmoved. Admiring the skill of each part but not affected by the sum of its parts. It’s beauty in a kind of vacuum.
A Very Human Thing: The Exeunt interview with Will Eno