What’s the point of marriage? Is it a sacred indissoluble union, a covenant of two souls bound together by the vow of ’till death do us part? Or is it an anachronistic institution, trapping hapless couples against their will in a slow, lifelong suicide pact of enforced obligation and mutual misery? Ted Whitehead’s play turns around these questions, always asking, yet never finding the answers.
Its two characters – the long-suffering, monogamously devout Norma (Tracy Ifeachor), and the sexually capricious manoeuvrer of social morality, Frank (Christian Roe) – remain deadlocked, unable to justify their position to their spouse any more than they are able to reconcile their differences. It is a play as relevant today as it was in 1972, and it speaks volumes about how deceptively little the changing landscape of gender politics has affected certain sections of society, as well as throwing a retrospective light upon the now much more acknowledged reality of domestic abuse within long-term relationships.
In an upstairs, sunlit room at the Finborough Theatre, Purni Morell’s production strips the play back to basics: a married couple having a series of arguments about fidelity in a cosily domestic setting; no stalls, no curtains, just the living room of the Elliot family home on Greengate Avenue. Morell’s decision to stage the couple’s disputes in the midst of a passively complicit audience perched on sofas and tucked around the kitchen table is an inspired one: it makes us accessories to the abuse on display, like awkward neighbours who’ve just popped in at the wrong moment, who wouldn’t dream of intervening because it’s not our house, not our family.
Verity Quinn’s set facilitates this sense of complicity (even if it does jar somewhat with the unedited references to pounds and shillings). Its modern, urban apartment aesthetic places us in the eye of a domestic storm that could just as easily be our own, now or in years to come, and when that world is ripped apart (as it is in the couples’ fight at the end of Act 2), it is the facade of our own polite society that slips and lies scuffling on the floor. Such modernisation normalises the Elliots’ behaviour, making what in 1972 may have appeared as the exposition of a shocking taboo seem now a far more everyday tragedy.
True, marriage is no longer the inescapable institution it once was, and Norma’s pleas for Frank to uphold the promise he made her may perhaps ring hollower for a modern audience, for whom marriage is an increasingly secular arrangement, but Ifeachor carries off with chutzpa her implacability as the result of a heart broken by too many years of unrequited love. Nor has the shifting landscape of gender politics so altered as to place us anywhere near Frank’s neo-Platonist credo ‘to put all the children of the world in a home! To learn to love’, but Christian Roe’s stellar performance, with its occasional lapses into guilt-ridden despair, steers clear of becoming just another raging stage cynic like Osborne’s Jimmy in Look Back In Anger, instead genuinely begging us to imagine a world where ‘free men…will live freely…with free women.’