Annie Baker’s new play was first seen in New York and arrives on the South Bank with high expectations after the success in 2016 of her earlier work Flick. However, these expectations are for the greater part not met, despite at least one very fine performance and a magnificently detailed set and design concept.
The play opens as an apparently coy and delicate elderly lady, Mertis (Marylouise Burke), pushes the curtain aside and putters about the stage. What is revealed is an over-stuffed interior of an historic guesthouse, located in Gettysburg, PA – there is so much ‘matter’ in Chloe Lamford’s design you can spend a great deal of time during the evening just examining it in detail. Into this apparent slice of American Gothic comes a young couple, Jenny and Elias, whose relationship is in a rocky state. They have stopped off for a couple of nights to see the sights of the famous Gettysburg battlefield. At a later stage they are joined by Mertis’s friend Genevieve, (June Watson), who is blind, and prone to oracular pronouncements about many subjects, especially a previous period of insanity.
There is very little in the way of plot. Scenes succeed one another almost randomly as Mertis shifts the hands on the grandfather clock and the lighting scheme shifts in turn. The couple quarrel, make-up and quarrel again. Mertis putters around dispensing a mixture of kindly charm, hints of the sinister and home-spun wisdom, without ever fully revealing her hand. Gestures are made towards many archetypes – Hitchcock territory, Osage County, and ‘Who’s Afraid of Baby Jane?’ – but none are decisively chosen. The writing meanders along naturally enough but without any real dramatic shaping or structure – in fact the order of the scenes could have been shifted without making much difference to the overall result. We do not care much about the characters, who in turn seem for the greater part to talk past each other.
There is a playfulness with language and some long speeches of fine local construction, but little dramatic impetus or tension. Hugely long pauses left this reviewer listening with pleasure to the Bach on Mertis’ jukebox but with little else to latch onto. Several people near me left at the intervals or seemed to nod off in the general torpor. If this is what ‘slow theatre’ really is about then it needs to be called out for what is truly is: tedious, whimsical and self-indulgent writing in which very few of the emotions depicted are truly earned in the telling or cohesive across time.
The players do sterling work with this very refractory material. The central performance by Burke is a lovely study in unsettling whimsy: like the old lady in The Lavender Hill Mob, Mertis keeps you guessing as to her motivations and inspirations: knowing, but also ultimately unknowable. Watson delivers her lines with crisp Sphinx-like declamation, including a bizarre front-of-curtain speech in the second interval. Mothersdale and Rice depict an unlikeable amalgam of characteristics that clearly include a damaged past covered over with brittle and unappealing identity politics. There are some witty and heartfelt exchanges between them that surface at times; but the subject-matter is repetitive and their final unravelling flagged a long way off.
The result is an evening that at over three hours is far too long and ultimately unjustified. We never, for example, receive a clear explanation for why this play has to be set in Gettysburg as opposed to any other location. Conversations drift in and out of focus so that we accumulate information but are denied interpretation. At the end of it life goes on much as before, with the various incidents having left few ripples on the surface. It is almost as though this is an early draft of a play that is in need of a dramaturg, which cannot be when Baker is such a knowing writer. No play needs necessarily to be entertaining in an easy, crowd-pleasing way, but it must avoid enervation at least, which this large-scale venture sadly does not.