Nathaniel Martello-White’s Torn is not about tearing but about mending what has been broken. Angel (Adele Leonce), a member of the Brooks family, gathers her relations for a meeting – a sort of intervention involving a circle of chairs and tea urns on a side table – to piece together the family history that has severed their bonds. As we wait with Angel an undeniable anxiousness hangs in the air. It’s as if she is preparing to open Pandora’s box. She adjusts and readjusts the chairs, choosing lines of sight carefully.
When the family arrive, the chaos is unleashed. Form mimics content: seemingly disparate scenes, some from the past and others from the present, are mashed up and forced together without pause. Memories are played out as evidence or as a way to understand the disrepair. Martello-White’s writing is relentless, both in its acute observations of the complexities of family dynamics, and in its structural disorder. Scenes blur into each other. It’s hard to keep track of who has said what, not to mention what hasn’t been said. It’s confusing, but it’s a strong concept. In family matters, nothing is entirely sequential or causal. Memories, desires and traumas are always present, either sitting on the sidelines of the action or playing out adjacent to it.
The Brooks are a mixed race family with an Irish Catholic matriarch, and this is a peripheral but critical power dynamic that plays out in their conversations. There is also an undercurrent of sexual politics, with Couzin (Osy Ikhile) – the ‘successful’ member of the family – having his sexuality continuously questioned. Notably, many of the character’s names are relational to emphasise their place in the family. Those on the outside are given names, such as Steve (James Hillier) and Brian (Roger Griffiths). These identity markers put stress on an already overburdened family, yet it’s Angel’s trauma that takes centre-stage.
The cast are strong in this experimental and complex work. They formidably cement their relationships from the offset and continuously riff-off of each other. Leonce’s Angel carries much of the burden to successfully maintain the energy. Kirsty Bushell’s Aunty J is biting, and Ikhile is an understated yet nuanced ally.
The troubles of the piece stem from its structure; it occasionally becomes hard to navigate the narrative terrain. Director Richard Twyman also places the action in the round, so that audience members are on all sides of the family drama. The actors don’t recognise the audience, and consequently our presence feels invasive. The Brooks family are on display and we sit as silent observers. In a piece that says so much about relationships, we as audience feel unrelated.
Perhaps that is part of the discomfort. As the secrets are unearthed and the Brooks family name is tainted, the audience are ultimately the judges of their reputation. The overwhelming desire of the family to maintain an image amounts to its undoing and it is us, the unnamed public, that holds the power to evaluate their legacy.
Torn is on at the Royal Court until 15th October 2016. Click here for more details.