There is a pull that you feel when reaching the edge of a cliff. It’s a sort of magnetism that tugs you to the precipice, perhaps to glimpse a breathtaking view, or to try and grasp a basic but profound change of scenery, to understand that the world and its landscape can change in a blinding instant. It’s sublime, and it’s not unlike the forces which lead us to our family home, to our past, and to other people.
Beacons is set on the cliffs at Beachy Head, and the edge of the stage morphs into the edge of the island. Mortiboy’s writing veers towards lyrical, and is best when also seemingly swayed by some larger force leading to lofty heights. Sixteen-year-old Skye (Emily Burnett) works for Julie (Tessa Peake-Jones) at her ice cream van, and Bernard (Paul Kemp) is a regular who is trying to find steady ground. The three of them, as Skye says, are a ‘constellation’: bodies of matter that have found themselves in proximity, a consequence of external forces. And while business fails to boom, the nights begin to lengthen, and the sea continues to eat the rocks, the relationships between them are slowly unearthed as they each search for love and friendship.
For a play set high on a dangerous cliffside, the piece feels remarkably safe. Burnett’s Skye is wide-eyed and impressionable in dungarees, and although Kemp and Peake-Jones are lovable in their roles, the ice cream-filled scenes end up being more saccharine than sweet. Contrast and contradiction make for great theatre, and Beachy Head is not only an idyllic tourist destination but also one of the most publicised suicide locations in the United Kingdom. Yet the looming abyss beyond the edge of the cliff, where churns the muscles of the dark sea, feels leagues away from the placid and plasticky green of the turfed grass and Julie’s Ice Cream. While Beacons aims to tackle the difficult subject of suicide, it fails to fully do so with any real gravity.
It’s like Edgar leading Gloucester up to the top of the cliffs of Dover. While he paints a picture of precarity and positions blind Gloucester inches away from the extreme verge, there lingers a suspicion that not all is as vertiginous as Edgar makes it out to be. And while we the audience are also told to believe in a steep, high-stakes landscape, the terrain at our feet jars with the words of our guide. Methinks the ground is even.
Even if the image is fully formed, there is no real leap being taken. Gloucester’s fall is one that occurs in the mind and not on the stage. The force that leads us to believe we have landed from a great height is the same force which steers us to the edge of the cliff. It is the terrifying but equally enticing force of the unknown, a desire to comprehend some altering and revelatory realm just out of reach. It can also be a force of harm and hopelessness. Like the sirens or the light of a lighthouse, these forces can govern us without our knowing and either drag us away from or draw us towards safe and sturdy ground. But in order to know, we must take one step further.
Beacons is on until 16th April 2016 at Park Theatre. Click here for tickets.