The floor is blanketed in black. This fine covering, like volcanic sand, scorched earth, becomes increasingly mottled as it is disturbed by pacing feet, the white wood underneath shows through as the earth is churned.
The new play by debbie tucker green interlaces stories from some of the most brutal conflicts of recent years. These stories are set not during the conflicts themselves but in the aftermath, years blurred by uncertainty and unanswered questions. The play explores the search for resolution and the agony of not knowing what happened to your wife, your husband, your child: the absence of an ending, any ending.
Designer Lisa Marie Hall has laid out the space like a courtroom, with the audience circled around the edges on hard, wooden seats onto which names have been scratched, marks made. Dates and locations have also been etched in the wood of the walls, like make-shift tombstones. The play begins with a scene from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A family are made to wait – more waiting to add to all the years they’ve already waited. The mother refuses to sit; she will remain standing until she is acknowledged, until she is given something tangible.
The South African strand bookends the play but green also visits Zimbabwe Rwanda, Northern Ireland and Bosnia; the characters are, for the most part, nameless while the language is economical, elliptical, to the point of being repetitious. A recurring motif sees people discussing where to sit, when to sit, picking over the little details as their loss floods into the spaces between, in acknowledgement of the fact that there is only so much words can achieve.
The stories echo one another, emotional tension co-existing with the mundane. This repetition, this constant circling, is – by necessity – at times frustrating: the play is constantly shifting, pulling back, holding back, disinclined to settle. Yet occasionally it sharpens its focus, and everything becomes tauter, clearer. The South African mother, powerfully played by Pamela Nomvete, articulates the pain of waiting for so many long years to end up here, facing an empty chair. A volatile Northern Irish woman bristles at having to defend the actions of her son. A dead Rwandan man confronts the man who killed him, left his wife a widow, forces him to remember.
The images that persist are those of doggedness and determination in the face of silence, the need to keep going even if to find the truth – or a version of it – will mean encountering fresh pain. Two Serbian men appear to barter over who will admit to a war crime, as if the thing that matters most is that someone – anyone – accepts blame, someone holds up their hands (which felt particularly pertinent with Mladic and Hadzic now awaiting trial in The Hague).
Some of the threads are more developed than others, but this helps establish the universal nature of the situation in which these characters find themselves: one story blends into the next, and while some come close to resolution, others are left hanging, incomplete. Throughout the play, the spare language pulses and flutters, with a kind of insectile delicacy, but when it hits, it hits hard.