A surprisingly gentle and empathic play that leaves a haunting sadness: Robert Reid on Daniel Keene’s The Curtain
Daniel Keene’s The Curtain at fortyfive downstairs is a play of surprising gentleness, deep sadness and a lonely kind of empathy. Beng Oh has directed a sensitive and nuanced production, and Keene’s writing is as touching, clever and compassionate as always.
Leon (Gil Tucker), Francis (Paul Weingott) and Mrs Munro (Milijana Cancar) share a house in the country. Leon and Francis are her tenants; Francis for five years, off and on, and Leon for three years straight. They have come to her over the years looking for somewhere to stay and she has taken them on as lodgers.
“Almost friends,” Leon says, describing his relationship with Francis as it has developed over those years. These two bicker and prattle at each other in a way that is reminiscent of Gogo and Didi in Waiting for Godot; there are the same patterns of language, the semi-circular rhythms, the reflections on emptiness at the end of their lives, as they rattle around in this big, old house like coins in a tin.
‘The end, he muses, is a curtain that we pass beyond but only ever see through indistinctly at best.’
There are also the same recriminations: they squabble over the fact that they don’t know each other, with Leon always criticising Francis, Francis always passive aggressive. After all this time they’re still guarded, not willing to let themselves grow too close to each other. As Mrs. Munro says towards the end, perhaps they could become friends and move on together; but probably they won’t. It’s as if each of them throws the other’s loneliness into relief.
We meet them as they are waiting for Mrs Munro to return home from visiting her long dead husband, John’s, grave. It’s late, past midnight, and Francis is concerned. Leon is too, probably, but he does his best not to show it, hiding behind good natured bluster and well-meant bickering. When she finally does return, she is drunk.
She has been to the local club, having stayed longer and drunk more than usual. Since the death of her husband this has been her custom, visiting him on the anniversary of his death, then going to the club to meet some friends she made after losing him. They’re not close friends; they don’t seem to see each other outside the club, and meet just often enough there to enjoy each other’s company, tell jokes, learn a little about each other.
But this year, they are gone. She sees no familiar faces; they have all left without saying goodbye. This is also the first year she has questioned why she is still going to visit the grave, why she has remained in the house, locked away with her memories and her two stray lodgers.
Having waited up so long for her, Francis falls asleep in the kitchen and it is left to Leon to carry him barely conscious up to bed. Left alone, Mrs Munro talks to the room, talking really to the memory of her husband John, but also to us in the audience. A young boy has gone missing in the town, become lost, and this is the talk of the people at the club. Her mood grows darker as she stands in the darkened room.
There are several of these monologue moments, in which each character has their turn to address us through the fourth wall. Little fragments of who they are emerge in these moments, but never enough to grow too close to them. They hold us at bay, just as they hold each other and the world at a distance.
In the darkened living room, with her lodgers retired for the evening, Mrs Munro takes a handful of sleeping pills with a glass of vodka. Perhaps her grief has overwhelmed her, or she has simply become too tired of who she is in this house full of buried memories and remembered pain. But she is discovered by Leon who is going to the kitchen for a midnight snack, and he revives her.
We learn this days later when she returns to the living room. The two men fuss around her, making tea and being sensitive in the way people are around someone who has attempted to take their life, but Mrs Munro is in fact newly energised. During her convalescence she has come to a decision: that it is time to sell the house and move on. It has been too many years alone in this house and this town, a place she moved to for her husband and remained in long after he was gone.
‘Perhaps they could become friends and move on together; but probably they won’t. It’s as if each of them throws the other’s loneliness into relief.’
Leon takes the news rather better than Francis. Francis is already established as the more timid of the three, hesitantly defending himself against Leon’s brand of “almost friendship” (at one point even being chased backwards around the dining room table). While Leon is sure that they’ll get along, that they’ll find some way to manage, Francis is in tears at the prospect of being homeless. We never find out where Francis has been in the times when he has been away from Mrs Munro’s house, so perhaps he has been homeless during these times, or was in a psychiatric hospital, or had someone else to rely on, family or friends, who are now gone. Either way, as he says, it has been a long time since he has had to make “other arrangements”.
Leon suggests, after some consideration, that perhaps they should make those arrangements together, but Francis doesn’t seem ready to accept such a proposition. It’s not so much any real dislike of Leon as his unreadiness to move on from this place that he has clearly come to see as his home. It’s not, of course, as Mrs Munro points out; it’s her home and it’s time for her to leave it. But she’s not insensible to the situation this puts the boys into.
She will help them find their way, she says, and is confident that they can. Leon has an uncharacteristically self-aware moment in which he describes how he thought that he had come to the end of his life, that he’d found his final place: but instead, no, now he must find at least one more. He muses that nothing is the end, that even lying face-down in a gutter smelling of shit will only be like the end, not actually the end. The end, he says, is a curtain that we pass beyond but only ever see through indistinctly at best.
What is saddest about this situation is that they seem like they could be friends, or at least could be good for each other, with or without the house; but none of them can find how. They can’t seem to see beyond the distances they’ve established between each other. The men struggle to call Mrs Munro by her first name, even after she has asked them to, and they all have a strong reliance on vodka to numb their senses.
In the wake of Mrs Munro’s announcement, she demands they have a party, a little party with just the three of them. They eat together, a meal of peas that had previously been used to bring down the swelling on a lump she acquired on her head while drunk. Then they have a few drinks, awkwardly dance with each other and play a game of pretending to be someone different. Francis struggles with the game, but eventually finds a life he might have lived or might have liked to, as a history teacher who wrote a book on the history of kindness. Leon struggles too, but with more confidence tells of how he is a drifter, moving from place to place, not staying too long anywhere before moving on once more. Another life that might really have been his, a life forgotten in this house, a life that he may soon have to return too.
‘At times the breeze from outside blows through the curtain, giving the room the appearance of sighing along with their sadnesses.’
Finally Mrs Munro takes her turn, but she tells a story that we can assume to be her own: how she has been alone in this empty house until the two quiet and tidy men arrived looking for somewhere to stay. How they once had a party and danced and played games before she left the house for good. They haunt each other, these three: they have become ghosts of lives that they might have lived, or have lived and forgotten.
We never leave the living-room space that we first find them in (set and costumes by Andrew Bailey) – a spacious and mostly empty room with a dining table, a single couch, a few lamps and a floor-to-ceiling translucent white curtain that leads through double doors to the world outside. At times the breeze from outside blows through the curtain, giving the room the appearance of sighing along with their sadnesses.
An unobtrusive soundtrack (Ben Keene) of soft jazz occasionally filters through into the space, sometimes from the record player and bar at the back of the room as they play records, and sometimes just barely in the air, like a memory. The lighting (Lisa Mibus), while mostly creating daylight or late evening, sometimes accents their silhouettes against the curtain, gorgeously backlit with gold.
There is a great deal of humour, particularly in the Odd Couple-ish sniping between Francis and Leon, and you can’t help but feeling affection for all three. I don’t want to see these three broken up and separated. We don’t, as the play ends before the party, before they must inevitably move on. It leaves a bittersweet, lingering sadness that haunts the memory of the actors in the space. All three of the performers give genuine and emotional performances, pitch-perfect characterisations of the three lost old people who find each other, but never allow themselves to be found.
The Curtain, by Daniel Keene. Directed by Beng Oh, set and costume design by Andrew Bailey, sound design by Ben Keene, lighting design by Lisa Mibus. Performed by Milijana Cancar, Gil Tucker and Paul Weingott. Presented by fortyfive downstairs. Until March 15. Bookings