After a couple of hesitant false starts, a sweetly apologetic enquiry into how comfortable we all are in our chosen seats, and a request for the house lights to go up so she can see us more clearly, the unnamed woman introduces her life – her ‘solo performance’ – with a list of abilities she lacks and tasks at which she fails. “I can’t cook, I can’t speak French, I can’t put together flat-pack furniture”¦ well, I can, but it always has that little wobble”¦” The list stretches on in a self-effacing, ‘oh, what a silly sausage I am’ tone, so that when it shifts into darker territory – “I can’t kick the bucket, I can’t push up daisies” – it is wrapped so cosily in textual euphemism and performative whimsy that it almost slips by unnoticed. Only subtly, by degrees, do we come to realise that this slightly gawky, quietly funny, self-deprecating young woman is a repeat near-suicide.
Drawing on and quoting directly from (a brave – ill-advised? – choice, that) the poems of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath – who, unlike our heroine, fulfilled their death wishes – Attempt is part deconstructed performance, part presentation, part confessional. As the unidentified woman, Charlotte Warner moves around the space, relating details of her near-drowning or near-hanging, all the while apologising for her life, and for her failure to achieve death. As we are alerted to the artificiality of the process – she questions the order of scenes, ponders how well they’ve worked – we see that her veneer of normality, this ‘performance’, is how she gets through the day, just as her determined staccato walk hints at a certain kind of automation.
In contrast, moments that seem about to plumb depths of emotion – the recollection of details, the desire to open veins and see a bloom of blood in the bathwater, the despair at yet another stab at death thwarted by a body that won’t give in – are in stark spotlight. It is in these moments that the text and Warner’s performance are potentially at their most affecting, and we teeter on the edge of a genuine connection, but the lack of a more powerful change in tone and register between these contrasting elements of the piece misses the mark. While almost drawing us in, it simultaneously keeps us at arm’s length. While this could be a deliberate choice to echo the paradox of depression, it makes for an emotionally uninvolving 50 minutes of theatre.
And although gallows humour provides a fitting gateway into this big, dark subject, this approach needs more than what’s explored here to justify it. What is well conveyed is the loneliness. This is a life utterly without reference – aside from the briefest of brushes with a nurse – to anyone else. Whether her isolation has driven her to want to die or her desperation to recede from the world has driven everyone away is not explored, but the self-effacing appeals to the audience about shared foibles or similar observations hint at a need to make connections that is undermined by the too light tone.
For me, there’s just not enough of the ‘why’ woven into the text or the structure to make it either credible or as affecting as the high points of the writing and the performance promise. The end is a deconstruction too far, a petering out, an extended apology for not ending, for that ending. Will she succeed at some point? Has this process been cathartic to the extent that she no longer needs to die? Is there hope for her, in her? I have no idea.
As a company, Jointventure have just graduated from Exeter University, and this is their first residency, thanks to Framework, the Bike Shed Theatre’s artist development programme. It’s an opportunity for new companies to broaden their practice (they are scratching a piece called Flood during these three weeks), to get new work in front of an audience and to take an active role in the city’s performance culture (it’s a sad fact that most graduates leave almost immediately). I sincerely hope that Jointventure stick around; Attempt demonstrates a lot of potential – it just doesn’t go far enough in its present form.