Three narratives interlock, soaked in the East Anglian dialect and sea, and scaled over with glimmering insights. Elizabeth Kuti’s new play layers her research into the history of the coast, castle, and mysterious island of Orford with personal stories separated by decades and centuries, making for a subtle, modern look at the ways in which people and places wear away and rub off on each other.
The trio of stories is elegantly structured in patterning pairs. Two are set in the past, two are women, two are relatives, two are touched by momentous historical events. Mab is a leather aproned, twelfth century castle servant who’s strangely drawn to the wild man captured in fishing nets, then held in the basement. Ben is an Australian visiting scientist, come to fix the newly installed, malfunctioning radar system that’s protection against the Soviet threat far over the waters, but caught up by a local romance. The present day Mog is reaching 30, a primary school teacher enduring the unhappy aftermath of an affair. Almost a fourth character, Orford Ness is an island off the coast that’s a place of mystery, sanctuary and treachery; used for Cold War military experiments, the National Trust Guide, in the programme notes, warns that “it will always be a hostile and potentially dangerous place.” As the narratives spill out, more and more links and shared images are piled on, reflected or refracted in pooling sea water from character to character. The links amplify, to become supernatural, in the subtlest possible sense – a kind of rural psychogeography where Orford’s small, distinctive landscape is embedded with invisible emotional and historical markers.
The actors share a stage, but their speeches are monologues, interacting only in the text. Matt Leventhall’s lighting design alternates between dappled water, a densely thorough blackout and pooling light that switches the trio on and off one by one, like light bulbs – a tight spotlight that puts full focus on their performances. Jessica Carroll’s Mab is wonderfully charismatic, her thick rolling accent making sense of the distinctive rhythms of speech that are relics of a lost world, where witches and the devil are as real as a mop and drudgery. Brett Brown’s endearing Ben stops just shy of caricature, bumbling his way through his hunt for sonic anomalies, and the local-gal-in-the-pub romance that has a faint whiff of cheese and onion crisps. Without the same historical heft, Mog’s present day narrative feels less distinctive, slightly marooned – but Eva Traynor’s performance is still completely engaging, her unclouded, mundane desolation closer to the surface.
The escalating links are seductive, but sometimes so neat, so thoroughly knitted in that when they make their inevitable appearances, they feel like the punchlines to wry black jokes. The stories of these three lost souls are shaken free from any traces of ponderousness in a zigzagging race over coast paths and into the waves. But this production’s slick, pacy polish still has enough room for thought to be completely absorbing – a shattered mirror on the Suffolk coast, holding stories and memories in mesmerising tension.