The Orange Tree’s annual Directors Showcase double-bill turns out, this year (and to the evident confusion of some audience members), to be a triple-bill, and a rather diverse and challenging one, at that. Selected and directed by the theatre’s two resident trainees, Karima Setohy and Polina Kalinina, the three short plays whisk the viewer from a bedroom in Edwardian Wimbledon to a 1960s
subway car via an unexpected - and thoroughly unnerving - excursion into Funny Games territory. It’s a varied programme, then, but one that proves surprisingly complementary. The plays are linked by a concern with identity, class, prejudice, power and communication, issues which are explored through a series of charged encounters that threaten to – and indeed sometimes do – erupt into violence. New York City
The evening opens comfortably enough with its lightest piece, The Burglar Who Failed by St. John Hankin, the Edwardian playwright whose The Charity That Began At Home received a proficient production by Auriol Smith at the Orange Tree at the end of last year. The Burglar... starts out like a proto-Home Alone escapade, with a pint-sized vigilante – Jessica Clark’s eager, sporty Dolly Maxwell – fending off David Antrobus’s intruder Bill Bludgeon with a hockey stick when she finds him hiding under her bed. But rather than erupting into full-blown farce and slapstick, the play takes a surprising turn, as Bludgeon confesses his distaste for his profession and the practical-minded Dolly sets about offering him career advice.
As in The Charity That Began At Home, then, Hankin both celebrates and lightly satirises middle-class Edwardian philanthropic inclinations here, and Setohy’s low-key production – though perhaps a little more static than is necessary in the second half – has genuine charm. It doesn’t add up to much, overall, but proves diverting throughout, with lovely, affectionate performances from Clark and Antrobus, and from Paula Stockbridge as Dolly’s harried, anxious mother.
Hankin’s wry brand of Edwardian empathy gets swapped for very contemporary unease in the second piece, Omar El-Khairy’s Return to Sender, a “response” to Hankin’s play that immerses the viewer in a considerably less cosy “home invasion” situation. Accomplished via a slow and superbly unsettling set-change segue, the production (also directed by Setohy) is effectively cross-cast with The Burglar Who Failed, and finds Clark brilliantly trading wholesomeness for menace as Rebecca, a teenager who’s holding hostage a well-to-do couple, Tom and Heather, for reasons that remain ambiguous to the end.
El-Khairy riffs cleverly on The Burglar... to produce a drama that touches upon a range of contemporary hot potatoes - the demonisation of youth, familial dysfunction, teenage sexuality and social inequality - while leaving plenty of space for audience interpretation. As Rebecca taunts Tom and Heather with threats of violence, accusations of infidelity and insinuations about their absent daughter Emma, the end result, as previously suggested, is more Haneke than Hankin, especially when Rebecca responds to Tom’s despairing “Why don’t you just kill us?” with the ineffably Funny Games-ish retort: “And deprive everyone of entertainment?” In addition, there’s more than a suggestion of Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake in the play’s use of a disruptive outsider figure to pick away at a middle-class family’s facade of respectability.
The writing isn’t always inspired (“You’re boring me!” shrieks Tom, unaccountably, to Rebecca at one point) and the pay-off lacks punch. But Setohy’s production retains a taut intensity, and is punctuated by nicely-judged moments of gallows humour. There are memorable jarring details, too - Rebecca’s knowledgability about classical music, for one - in a play that expresses a great deal of scepticism about how well we can know others, whether strangers or those allegedly “closest” to us.
A final disquieting encounter plays out in Kalinina’s expert production of Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman which, opening to the strains of “Sinnerman,” presents a provocative parable of American race relations. Written in the early '60s, at the height of its author’s embracing of Black Nationalism, and hailed by Norman Mailer as “the best play in America,” Baraka’s drama focuses on the meeting of a white woman, Lula (Sally Oliver), and a middle-class black man, Clay (Paapa Essiedu), on a subway car (nicely rendered in Sam Dowson’s clever design). It’s an encounter that moves from playful flirtation and sexual interest to a highly-charged exchange of racist invective (some of which elicited gasps of shock from certain audience members). “We’ll pretend that you’re free of your history... and I’m free of mine” suggests Lula. But the impossibility of such a pretence is Dutchman’s thesis, as the two protagonists find themselves unable to extricate themselves from the script of American race and gender roles.
Given that the play is, in Baraka’s terms, about “the difficulty of becoming a man in America [where] manhood – black or white – is not wanted” it’s not surprising that the characterisation of Lula is decidedly problematic. A flagrant sexual tease, neurotic liar and racist, the character doesn’t just represent “the spirit of America” she’s also Eve, and arrives bearing a whole bag full of apples as she attempts to tempt Clay out of his assimilationist stance. Oliver overcomes the crassness of the characterisation with a full-on physical performance that’s brave and striking, and she’s well-matched by Essiedu who brings wry humour and watchfulness to Clay as well as a captivating ferocity to the character’s explosive tirade at the end.
Brash and Beat-influenced, punchy and pushy (small wonder that this is a play that found favour with Norman Mailer!), Baraka’s highly mannered dialogue is American to the core – but there’s no disputing its charge and vigour in performance. The pessimism of the playwright’s vision in Dutchman – in which relationships between blacks and whites are presented as a cycle of acrimony and violence that’s destined to repeat itself, ad infinitum – is hard to take. But, buoyed by its vivid performances and boosted by the intimacy of the Orange Tree’s space, Kalinina’s production flies.