Loving Kurt Vonnegut is a well-executed production driven by fabulous talent. The premise of playing games with a stranger in order to write a literary masterpiece is not exactly new but the direction does draw out some excellent performances.
Let’s go back. Gary Stalker is a writer and poet and he has crafted a well-made play in three acts. The plot follows the traditional narrative arcs (expose, climax and dénouement) and questions these very formulae as it goes along. Anthea Hill is wonderfully vivacious as Alice, the young aspiring writer who is in a relationship with Colin (David Aston), a well-known veteran who is significantly older and uncomfortably close to death.
Together Hill and Aston are the epic Muse and Creator; together they have spun worlds of delight and suspense yet frustration builds as their symbiotic relationship begins to creak under the weight of age. But before the grand finale a stranger is invited to be part and party to their final hurrah. Enter Casey (Damien Avery) who appears to be no more than just another lad at the bar looking for a good night out and finds himself embroiled in a very strange ménage-a-tois.
Director Paul Gittins is clearly working with excellent ingredients: there is little to fault in the acting. Aston, despite his character’s decline, is always the life of the party and balances the contradictory whims of his young lover and her bewildered guest with aplomb. Similarly, Hill offers insight into the many facets of her character’s psyche: the petulant lover, the demanding seductress, the beguiling fair lady and of course the childish maiden, who brings coffee and chocolate believing it will be the cure mortality.
Opposite both these talents is Avery who offers the audience everything you expect from a character who has literally stumbled into a den of conniving artists willing to expend energy, time and alcohol to get what they want.
But is it enough? Stalker’s script is substantial in the middle but its opening and closing scenes simply consume valuable energy and space without offering much to entice the audience into this world. Weighed down by heavy prose and dated references (Joseph Conrad, really?), it struggles to stage its relevance in meaningful ways.
There is a streak of nihilism that echoes throughout the play as Colin reminds his grieving young lover that death will claim him: “There is no ‘one day’… there is no future” and as such the play is somewhat stuck in a strange time-warp. The costumes also seem dated and appropriately so until the characters seem to respond in contemporary language.
There is sense of run-on poetry, especially in Hill’s character, and while this works occasionally it does limit an understanding of the so-called necessary backstory. The absence of this fails to highlight her drives, motivations and subtle use of her older lover in games that far exceed the simplified interactions we witness. Of course, when Casey does offer his backstory and slowly starts morphing into a version of Colin, the semi-structured narrative that had been so carefully construed by the two lovers begins to falter on delivering its expected outcomes. Unfortunately, the play gets caught up in this game of reality vs illusion tag which it never quite transcends.
This is slightly frustrating because aesthetically this work comes together exceptionally well. Both Christine Urquhart (stage and costume designer) and Ruby Reihana-Wilson (lighting designer) have developed a sophisticated palette of beige, white and sand and these support the ephemerality of the world Stalker has created.
But the reality of this world – and yes, its ties to the frailty of life and flippancy with which we treat others – are simply not grounded in much more than the predictable chronological sequence of events. Furthermore, the efforts to disrupt that narrative are not significant enough to cause any massive emotional tectonic shift and the final closing scenes, bitter-sweet as they are and true to the moment, fail to create the pathos that the play purports to have been moving towards.
There is much to applaud in this work, particularly the acting and brilliant performance moments drawn out by Gittins’ direction. But the premise needs to be further developed; the purpose of telling this story needs to be connected beyond the cognitive rationale and the physical representation. Its purpose is currently far too amorphous.
Yes, indeed, Loving Kurt Vonnegut excels in pointing out the flaws of the well-made play and the limits of prescription and formulae – but pointing out the flaws don’t make them disappear.
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