Robert Reid reviews Right Now at Red Stitch and tries to identify his discomfort with the play
Note: Review contains spoilers
There’s something disturbing about Right Now which is more than the creepiness baked into the story. Something about how it portrays its central character, Alice (Christina O’Neill). Something about how the neighbours are so suggestively foreign.
It’s a stylish production of the play, by Québécois writer Catherine-Anne Toupin, directed by Katy Maudlin. Emily Barrie’s design is modern and timeless, employing classic lines in costume, set and furniture. Heavy grey walls, mausoleum-lite, make it feel like there’s no world outside this flat. It reminds me of ‘70s horror: relentless in its march towards its conclusion.
Alice is a haunted young woman and the play twists its loops around her. She never seems to leave the flat. It’s often dark and your occasionally hear the sound of a baby crying from another room.She doesn’t go to comfort the crying baby. When we first encounter her husband Ben (Dushan Phillips) he’s leaving for work. There’s clearly a distance between them. She wants him to stay. He’s reluctant. He doesn’t stay.
In the centre of the stage is the door to the corridor. When open, it reveals the door of the flat opposite. The flat number is prominent, faux gold, flashing like a signal every time someone opens the door to Ben and Alice’s flat.
From that door across the hall come the neighbours. Juliette (Olga Makeeva) with her flame red hair and too-blunt-too-soon familiarity with strangers. Her son François (Mark Wilson) is tall, awkward, in-your-face passive aggressive, with slicked down hair, short pants and a short sleeve shirt. He looks like the ventriloquist’s dummy that you might find hovering over you at midnight with a kitchen knife in its hand. The final neighbour is Gilles (Joe Petruzzi), an academic father figure, bearded and overpowering, sophisticated and predatory.
The neighbours leer and hover like ghouls, making cryptically threatening remarks. They invite themselves around, insinuating themselves into Alice and Ben’s life. They seem, from the very beginning, to have a plan. A plan for what? It isn’t clear. At least, it doesn’t remain clear. From moment to moment, Right Now smears and blurs the realities it sets up. From scene to scene, one set of underlying dramaturgical structures is replaced by another.
We learn that Alice and Ben have lost their child and that the cries we hear are only in Alice’s head. We learn that the neighbours lost a son too, many years ago, also named Ben. They are all very frank about wishing they had lost François instead.
Before she meets him, Juliette recognises Ben from his photo. He looks exactly as she imagined he would. François and Juliette both talk about how comfortable François would be in Ben and Alice’s apartment. There seems to be a silent compact between them, a plan to supplant Ben with François, perhaps, like the cuckoo that steals the eggs of other birds and leave their own to be hatched instead.
A dinner party gets out of control. Alice fucks Giles on the counter of the kitchen while Ben cries for his lost mother on Juliette’s lap in the lounge. It’s a shared kitchen and lounge so the lack of impact these two events have on each other points to the hallucinatory nature of the moment, and how far apart all these characters really are. Alice dances for Ben in an awkwardly frantic seductive display, trying to rouse him from his reverie, but he remains blank and staring.
Gradually the play seems to settle into a familiar groove. This is a world run through with grief. Alice, the grieving mother, is the eye through which we see the world. She replays the final cries of her son over and over, her grief twisting her perception of events, confusing the real with her tortured imagination.
But soon Juliette can hear the crying too. Soon it’s not clear what belongs to Alice. Her place in the world is upended around her. The greyness of the flat matches Ben’s grey costume, but by the end of the play François is wearing grey. All the neighbours begin in shades of red and by the end Ben is also in red. Alice remains in cool ocean blues. The calm centre of the world pivots on.
In the end Ben drifts vacantly away, reluctantly at first, to take Francois’ place as the child of the neighbours. Meanwhile, François has aggressively and knowingly inserted himself into Alice’s life. He even carries a living, crying baby to Alice to be comforted.
What it all means depends on which end of the play you believe is real. Is this the shock and sadness of losing a child, or is it the distorted reality of post-partum depression? Was Ben actually Alice’s husband, or was Francois? Was their child alive or dead? Are the neighbours social succubi feeding on the hapless residents who move in across from them, or is Alice imagining it all?
The “and it was all a dream” ending comes as a bit of a slap in the face. Alice is violated in a range of ways over the course of the story, and her character pays the price of the trick mechanism that makes this play work. I think it’s too high a price for clever mechanics that don’t ultimately leave us, the audience, with any profound shift in our perception.
Right Now makes Alice an empty sacrifice, which to me feels cheap. But if you’re not getting enough Edward Albee in your life, this might be a good substitute.
Right Now by Catherine-Anne Toupin (translated by Chris Campbell) directed by Katy Maudlin. Sets and costumes by Emily Barrie, lighting Richard Vabre, sound Daniel Nixon, choreography Jared Bryan. Red Stitch Theatre. Performed by Christina O’Neill, Olga Makeeva, Joe Petruzzi, Dushan Phillips, Mark Wilson. Red Stitch until May 20. Bookings
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