The Children – redefining well-being as responsibility, at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
THE CHILDREN – by Lucy Kirkwood

Directed by Susan Wilson

Catherine Downes (Rose)
Carmel McGlone (Hazel)
Peter Hambleton (Robin)

Set Design – John Hodgkins
Lighting – Marcus McShane
Sound – Oliver Devlin
Costumes – Sheila Horton

Circa Theatre, I Taranaki St., Wellington

Tuesday 2nd April, 2019

Enigmas abound in this award-winning 2016 play by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood, here presented by Wellington’s Circa Theatre, and brought to everyday life by art-that-conceals-art performances from the three actors, Catherine Downes, Carmel McGlone and Peter Hambleton, in tandem with similarly naturalistic, almost self-effacing direction from Susan Wilson – a worthy New Zealand premiere production.

Firstly, the play’s title leads one to expect that the subject, theme, story, etc., will feature, if not directly, eponymously younger people than those we encountered right throughout the evening’s presentation. Yes, during the action we were told a good deal about the eldest child of two of the characters, Hazel (Carmel McGlone) married to Robin (Peter Hambleton), though very little about the other three children. But it turns out that this child, Lauren, is less of a flesh-and-blood dramatic character than a representative factor in the issue that the play almost teasingly and certainly intriguing takes its time to reveal. The “children” of the play’s title eventually materialise, but not in the shape or form or context we might expect.

Then there’s the context of the whole thing – set on England’s Eastern Coast, the character’s interactions are played out in the wake (we are told, and made startlingly aware of by a couple of disturbing “extrusions” of human fluid) of some kind of nearby nuclear accident (Kirkwood’s play was written as a reaction to the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, caused by an earthquake and an accompanying tsunami). For the three characters, the “accident” mentioned in the play effectively changed their career-paths as nuclear phycisists, as it destroyed the power plant where all three of them were working – Hazel and Robin have (for various reasons) stayed in the neighbouring area, while Rose (Catherine Downes) went to live and work in the USA). For some reason, they’re now back together.

Finally – in broad brush-stroke terms – there’s an air of long-suppressed and barely-disguised acrimony generated by the reunitement of the threesome and their portrayed interactions – here the writer plays with our expectations and sensibilities most intriguingly, imparting to each of the characters a resonant “identification-with” set of quotients in the situation, both inherited and further enlarged. Has Rose returned merely to re-ignite an affair with Robin? Has the bond between Hazel and Robin been gradually undermined by various life-events to the point of vulnerability for both? Just what is it that motivates this ground-shift on Rose’s part?

All of this evolved in a slow-burning sort of way, despite the “surprise punctuation” of Rose’s bleeding nose, seen right at the play’s beginning, but then seemingly forgotten, as the characters circled around and in and out of each other’s worlds.  Rose curiously seemed familiar with the locations of things in the house – a footstool found unhesitatingly under a chair and the drinking glasses in the right cupboard – and Hazel appeared increasingly disconcerted by Rose’s presence and pronouncements, in particular the latter’s provocative “wanting to lick a man” confession going down less than enthusiastically with her companion!)

With the arrival of Robin, Hazel’s husband, home from his work on the farm, the tensions tautened, with Robin heartily proposing he open the parsnip wine by way of celebrating Rose’s arrival, and then sending Hazel to answer the ringing ‘phone, during which time he lost little time in making “advances” to the visitor, which were gently repulsed – was this, then, the “nub” of the drama, a commonplace marital betrayal revealed for what it was?  Hazel’s revelation to us that she figured Rose HAD been in the house before, and that she knew of Robin’s and Rose’s affair seemed then to gradually but effectively deflate that particular scenario. So, where did things go from this point?

Adroitly, Kirkwood then introduced an idea whose message runs counter to the last forty years’ worth of mainstream thinking, and to the last hundred years of frantic industrialisation before that – the idea of a generation of people demonstrating responsibility, by doing something to clean up the environmental messes they themselves had created, rather than leaving future generations to do so. In answer to Robin’s half-serious remark to Rose, “So you haven’t come to seduce me?” the latter wryly replied, “No, you haven’t aged very well” – before telling him that she had returned to go back and work at the power station, and that it was her responsibility – she needed to come back and try to “clean up the mess”- not leave it to younger people who have families and their lives still to live.

What resulted from this statement and Rose’s subsequent invitation to both Robin and Hazel to “join her” in her mission formed the “near-divine-comedy” which followed – in an interview I watched AFTER seeing the play Kirkwood made it clear that she wasn’t interested in creating a theatrical scenario featuring younger people ACCUSING their elders of creating environmental chaos and leaving it for others after them to clean up – she sought instead the idea of demonstrating responsibility and awareness in a world where individuals often feel powerless – like children, in fact – which the playwright stressed was the gist of the play’s title, the fact that the characters themselves are the children, in the state of what it is to be a child in their powerlessness.

What they all do in the face of Rose’s proposal is individually and collectively run a gamut of emotion and subsequent action and interaction that “work out” their stances, expectations and fears – this “working out” includes physical confrontation (more blood), scenes of recrimination, sequences of music and dance, and even yoga routines, all mirroring either stances, enlargements of consciousness or shifting of attitudes, come what might from it all. It has something of the ancient  idea of “in death there is life” about it all, perhaps the “children” within each of these extremely flawed individuals finding themselves again and in their own unique versions of selflessness achieving their true purpose.

No praise for each of the performers can be too high – they inhabited, in fact, burgeoned within their respective roles, drawing us into identifications with this and that aspect of their characters with surprising sympathy and lasting resonance. These “everyperson” qualities were reinforced by costume choices that fitted each character like a glove, and supported by set designs which underlined the strictures of their situation. Both sound and lighting effects brought potent reminders of these same territories, transporting our sensibilities to “other realms” as surely and as resoundingly as anything I’ve recently seen at Circa. Director Susan Wilson, along with everybody else involved with this production, would surely have been well pleased with both its intrinsic impact and its reception.

(Until 27th April 2019)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *