The only thing that makes life bearable is the ephemeral, that which doesn’t have to have a line drawn under it to give it meaning: sex, love, more sex. And by love, I mean that time in love, not the time which precedes or follows love, for the anticipation period and the post-autopsy period are when and where we individually and collectively pluck out or try to pluck out meaning. In ‘Bluets’, playing at the Royal Court, desire comes, as it should, first, and meaning and a happy lack of meaning come next.

Three actors stand at three desks, before three screens; in front of them, whisky glasses, which, throughout the production are sipped at and replenished.  We know they are one person inhabiting three bodies because they complete each other’s thoughts, each other’s sentences. Off the bat they ask, ‘What if I said I fell in love with a colour? Why blue? I never know how to respond.’ The rest of the play is an exploration of these two questions.

‘Bluets’ is an elegy to love: human love and the love of the depression the character has sunk into/embraced.

It would, perhaps, over-simplify the narrative – though it’s not quite a narrative – to say that the colour blue the character is in love with and desires, pulls him/her to the end (death) and yet holds him/her back from the brink. There is here a human yearning for the metaphysical and a human yearning for amassing a collection of things. Countering Marx, we see that materiality, too, has a value, for these things root us in the world. The character collects blue things (stones, ink, paint, sweets), watches blue skies, swims in a blue swimming pool. He/she wears one blue shirt after another and then, one day, or is it a night, stands before a river, blue, but a murky blue, and tips, arching down, like a fallen angel.

The script works, like memory, in fragments. And also, like the things we remember, there is no linearity. Some of the lines are mournful, some beautiful; the references to other texts and famous people who either suffered with depression or who had an ardour for the colour blue, I personally found a little grating. With the reference to Heraclitus’ stepping into the river and time, I was slapping my hand to my head, emojified.

Jodi Mitchell, Billie Holliday play and a screeching sound intersperses from time-to-time.

While the character is battling with depression, two events occur: the person he/she loves leaves for a seaside town to be with the other woman he/she loves. Then that person has an accident and is paralysed for life. The character goes into hospital and becomes his/her lover’s carer. He/she says, this is ‘A pain I can witness, imagine, but not know.’ This physical pain is offset with the character’s mental pain. The play now goes on to explore both.

A recent report came out to say that in the Netherlands, one can now seek euthanasia/assisted dying for both physical and mental illnesses. With the onslaught that now taints our world of mental illnesses, mentally degenerative illnesses and mental development illnesses, we are now, all, in some fashion or the other, familiar with the concept of invisible disabilities.  This play leads us to explore not only how painful a thing depression is, but also how hard holding onto life really is.

Director Katie Mitchell is at the top of her game. She here employs her signature live cinema technique to beautiful effect, with screens displaying various venues and actors moving on stage to join the cinematic frame. This is a technique, though far less sophisticatedly employed, I remember from children’s TV shows in the distant days when I was a child and something I’ve recently seen in the programmes my son watches. Here, the technique has great artistry to it.

The sheer scale of the operation: live cinema, filmed shots, acting, rapid fire change of sets, music, is a wonder to watch. The artistic team behind this operation (director, designer, video director and music and sound designer) have created a technical feat and oftentimes, a technical delight.

The casting is perfect, and the acting, superb, subtle. Each of the three actors bring a distinct tenor and taste to the text. Ben Whishaw’s gentleness; Emma D’Arcy’s forlornness and the beauty of Kayla Meikle’s voice. The moments that stick are Ben Whishaw dancing, as if someone’s loped off his inner motor; Emma D’Arcy’s lapis blue eyes that look, magnified on the screen, like the eyes of someone who’s made a suicide pact, Kayla Meikle’s fake understanding of something which turns out to be a bad penis joke. There is both languor and speed in the actors movements; both, deliciously held.

There is a running joke about the character applying for grants to explore the meaning of blue; grants for a study he/she has not yet written one word of.

There are some lovely stand- alone lines: ‘Last night I wept until I aged myself’; ‘the sadness which has become some binding.’ And some scenes that offer us the hope of freedom/transcendence – the arms pushing, gently, against the water in a swimming pool. And when the character is stuck in a village surrounded by plants and trees, how is it that the green seems so suffocating? All he/she has to do, he/she realises is look up and there it will be, like ‘home’ in a game of Ludo: blue.

Ben Whishaw is soon to be playing in ‘Waiting for Godot’, and though ‘Bluets’ may aspire to Beckett’s philosophical lostness, this script does not have the rigour of Beckett’s thinking nor his precise as a pin dramatic sensibility. Ultimately, then, there is something missing, and I think that something is drama.

The Royal Court

Director: Katie Mitchell

Original book: Maggie Nelson

Adapted for the stage: Margaret Perry

Music and Sound designer: Paul Clark

Designer: Alex Eales

Video Director: Grant Gee

Until: Sat 29 Jun 2024

Running time: 80 minutes (no interval)

Cast includes:  Emma D’Arcy, Kayla Meikle and Ben Whishaw