What’s important in a story? A beginning, a middle and an end, perhaps; characters, events, narrative momentum. Thom Pain has a story to tell us, but he’s not particularly concerned with the conventions. “Picture whatever you want,” he impishly instructs us after reeling off a particularly elaborate scene. “You’re free, at least to this little extent, yes?”
Individual freedom is just one of the ideas that is juggled and pummelled by Will Eno’s gorgeously surreal monologue, a darkly funny meditation on mortality, love, fear and the pain of being alive. For Thom, human life is both ordinary and extraordinary, blissful and excruciating. Through a wildly meandering journey from afflicted childhood to fearful adulthood and the hopeful, frustrated flickers of love, life emerges as an extended, incurable illness – “isn’t it wonderful how we never recover?” In Thom’s eyes, we are all masochists. Perhaps he’s right.
Aided by a weighty dictionary – Thom’s sole possession – he both wields and undermines words, implicitly questioning the ability of our language’s many synonyms to truthfully convey the experience of living whilst at the same time playfully throwing them around. From the meaningless cruelty of life to the modern erosion of meaning and emotion that is blandly summed up by the insipid prevalence of the word “whatever”, Eno’s monologue bores right to the heart of contemporary existence, if by a disorientatingly zigzagging route.
But this is not just an hour of static, one-man philosophising. Thrillingly, Eno writes with a hyper-sensitive awareness of the specificities and quirks of theatre, a mode of writing that is precisely attuned to the fact of its performance. While Thom seems to vomit words in a stream of consciousness mind-splurge, this scattergun score is composed very specifically for the ears of an audience. Eno’s protagonist is acutely aware of the figures staring out from the gloom and of the need for that audience to be present, an intriguing recognition of one of the unacknowledged imperatives of theatre. A performer is implicitly dependent on the presence of spectators, reflecting a very human need to be observed in order to perpetuate some self-deceiving delusion that our tiny actions have a larger impact.
This constant acknowledgement of the audience that is scripted in by Eno allows for director Simon Evans and performer John Light, a wired, anguished Thom, to play with conventions of audience interaction and the illusion of spontaneity. Light’s tortured yet somehow charismatic Thom channels the persona of the deadpan comedian, throwing Eno’s words around with such virtuosity that the meticulously crafted sentences acquire the quality of brilliant ad-libbing. As Light addresses members of the audience directly and clambers between the rows of chairs, the notion of audience interaction is obliquely cultivated but never genuinely committed to, hinting at the falseness of such gestures of inclusivity. Laying bare the artifice of a medium that fumbles for truth while standing on a foundation of lies, veracity is constantly under investigation.
Eno’s analysis of the world and the self, while not particularly original – these are the questions that philosophers have been wrangling over for centuries – is uncannily perceptive and idiosyncratically expressed. Essentially, we’re all beating our own “dead horse of a life”, each moment edging a little closer to death, while enduring an existence that is frequently ridiculous and often just a bit shit. Perhaps, as Thom suggests, we don’t really need him to tell us that. But for what reason do we go the theatre, for what reason do we blithely volunteer to sit perched, often uncomfortably, in the dark for a couple of hours surrounded by strangers, if not to question what it is to be human?
Read the Exeunt interview with Will Eno.