★★★★★ | Vincent River
Lady Sasha de Suinn reviews director Robert Chevara’s highly-praised take on Philip Ridley’s Vincent River, the gripping, LGBT psychodrama now running at the West End’s Trafalger Square Studios to June 22nd.
Ever had a loved one viciously murdered by homophobic thugs? Shockingly frequent, it’s a homicidal hate-crime that’s an appalling indictment of the mindset and culture responsible, and the emotional impact on those left behind grieving forms the premise of author Philip Ridley’s taut, tense, Vincent River.
The scene? Night, in an East London council flat; a tall, lithe boy in a hoodie – Davey – walks in on Anita, a much older, white-haired woman, her body language simply sizzling with barely-suppressed emotional cyclones and explosive attitude. The static, living-room set epitomises sink-estate notions of chic, a relentless tsunami of IKEA décor, as utterly unmemorable and stripped of personal panache as a freshly-embalmed corpse. A deliberately bland, dramatic arena, it’s a staging choice that subtly deflects audiences from imposing spurious subtexts on anything but the raw, visceral performances themselves.
Still, perhaps even author Ridley himself overlooked one interpretation of his play; it’s certainly possible, as I do, to view Vincent River as a schizophrenic Armageddon, staged Samuel Beckett-style inside the metaphysical confines of the protagonist’s skull. A tempting take, sure, but which would severely impoverish Ridley’s magisterial excavation of the nuances of human grief.
Effortlessly displaying the sure-footed, forensic finesse of a Jed Mercurio police procedural, Vincent River meticulously unpicks the mingled rage, denial and loss seething in the toxic glories of motherly grief.
Let’s get specific; the action throughout probes the fraught, powder-keg dynamics between hooded youth Davey (Thomas Mahy) and grieving mother Anita (Louise Jameson). Unexpectedly – considering he’s gained only limited, professional acting experience since recently graduating – Thomas Mahy is hugely impressive, his quicksilver body language adroitly mimicking his character’s kaleidoscopic shifts of youthful moods and nuances; the emotional awkwardness and naivety of Harry Enfield’s Kevin re-imagined with the forensic finesse of a Dostoevsky.
And (much) older readers might fondly remember Jameson as Dr Who’s companion Leela, way back in the late 1970s, but please, forget the threadbare, cartoon character development she was insultingly offered there; Ridley’s challenging, meaty script grips like a Shakespearian pit-bull on crack. Thrillingly, it fully stretches Jameson’s hugely fluent emotional reach; here, she’s been unavoidably weathered by life, but also gained a gnomic, Delphic oracle of the streets wisdom. She’s spiky, defensive – but also strangely unflustered. In a subsequent, staccato blizzard of character-revealing small talk – done with aplomb that, by brilliant contrast, exposes TV soap dialogue as the chronically one-dimensional trash it is – we learn the bare bones of Anita and Davey’s intimately connected dilemma.
Initially assuming Davey’s a stalker – he’s been conspicuously lurking in her vicinity ever since her son was murdered – Anita jumps to clichéd, wholly unjustified and negative conclusions. Most obviously, she’s completely wrong-footed by Davey’s unselfconscious, wholly natural adoption of ‘Ebonics’, the swaggering patois of sussed, urban black kids, endearingly mimicked by clueless white boys craving instant street credibility. But, she’s hardly some morally-impeccable Disney mom, presented as an admirable and infallible role-model. Rather, she’s given to snap, ethically-dubious judgements, her blanket dismissal of neighbours with ‘names you can’t pronounce’ exposing her subconscious problem with diversity, socially and sexually.
Still, we’ve barely scratched the poisons lurking behind Davey and Anita’s initially benign shadow-boxing. And thank Lord Buddha on benzedrine for that serious, internal darkness powering the action – the last thing serious drama needs is a crippling attack of snowflake hypersensitivity. But guess what? Unpleasant moral ambiguities make fascinating theatre, but while King Lear might not require trigger-warnings – except for Instagram-deluded addicts suffering terminal fluffy-bunny syndrome – Vincent River, quite gloriously, hurts to watch!
Oh, not in some negative, so bad it’s painful sense, of course; rather, what director Chevara has crafted is a riveting, hyper-refined master-class in one of the least explored theatrical modes of the 20th Century; Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. Put off by the name? Don’t be – we’re not talking lame flourishes of public, S&M sex for knackered libertines and mistresses. No, Artaud wanted theatre that raged with the incandescent fury and passion of a Nelson Mandela intoxicated by the unstoppable conviction of his own belief, of performances so committed and emotionally fluent the only ‘cruelty’ they’d inflict, ideally, was provoking some reaction from terminally apathetic audiences, and maybe, just maybe, challenging and changing their petrified points of view!
Does Vincent River do that? Oh god, yes – in spades. Jamming a theatrical pedal to the metal from Moment One, the pace – as in Mad Max: Fury Road– never lets up. Davey, it transpires, didn’t kill Vince, but found his butchered corpse, and he’s been haunted by intrusive memories ever since. And one (possible) solution? A devil’s advocate pact; Davey (often prompted under pressure) gradually discloses the circumstances surrounding Vince’s murder. Simultaneously, a startlingly courageous Anita gradually strips off her emotional armour, revealing her love, scalding grief, and – most shockingly – subconscious unease with her son’s sexuality.
Building a ferocious, cumulative intensity courtesy of its’ strict compliance to the rather grandly-termed ‘Aristotelian Unities’ – which simply means unfolding a drama in a fixed location in real time – Vincent River scalds itself into the mind’s eye. But that’s not because of the graphic descriptions of Vince’s murder, and critiques dwelling on that trope completely miss the point. No, what’s startlingly atypical in Vincent River is the implication that – quite miraculously for a culture brutalised by shockingly routine sadism and unprecedented war atrocities – Davey and Anita’s capacity to grieve and navigate loss is still inexplicably intact.
So, it should come as no surprise that Anita’s given profession is a seamstress; after all, what else do seamstresses do but fit seemingly unrelated patterns together?
Deftly, she unpicks the successive, chameleon layers of misdirection Davey’s employed to hide the truth, perhaps most risibly in an abortive masquerade at becoming engaged to ‘Raytch’ – AKA Rachel, his supposed girlfriend.
Still, a boy-friendly penis never lies, and – sparked to phallic rigidity by a pouting, pop-rag photo of a six-packed boy band idol, Davey meets, woos, is fascinated by and seduces Vince. It’s a whirlwind bromance, taking a fatal turn following sex in a disused, off-the-beaten-track loo, with Vince insisting they leave separately. Cue five drunk, homophobic thugs cornering an isolated Vince and Davey – unnoticed in the shadows – paralysed by fear and helplessly witnessing his lover’s savage murder.
It’s that retrospective revelation that sparks a pivotal scene inexplicably seen by many as shockingly contentious. Recounting – and almost reliving – his euphoric, sexual encounter with Vince, Davey inadvertently kisses Anita, and her physical body blindly supersedes societal taboos, aching to sexually touch the flesh that last intimately touched her son, her grief given some holy transfiguration as a form of chaste, morally neutral, vicarious incest.
Tragically, she’s physically wet with passion, but the crushing, societal norms that cripple and censor diversity- condemning countless millions to live in denial- shockingly reassert themselves; she screams in blood-curdling, conflicted agony, unable to sanctify her bereavement – and son’s memory – with her body’s spontaneous offering of an involuntary, ego-free orgasm.
The possibility of redemption, however, still exists, and if Davey and Anita have failed to banish their mutual pain, it’s at least been decisively lanced. And author Philip Ridley’s closing message? That there is always hope – even in the most appalling circumstances.
Vincent River plays at Trafalgar Studios until 22nd June 2019, Book tickets here