Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Theatre Review • BLACKBIRD • Oxford Playhouse • 2008

Robert Daws

Robert Daws

In 1998, almost ten years ago exactly, Gitta Sereny published a book titled Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary BellSereny’s recurrent theme is the nature of evil, most often examined through the rigorous investigative journalism on the Nazi period, but also on the subject of Bell. Her unique interviews grant insight into the troubled case of a child branded ‘evil’, who as an eleven-year-old girl killed two toddlers and was convicted of manslaughter on diminished responsibility. I mention Sereny because she is relevant. Her refusal to adopt conventional red-top attitudes to morality and psychology revealed a traumatised child, and led readers into a murky area beyond, to quote Nietzsche, good and evil.

Blackbird can make a similar claim dramatically. Taking as its theme the abuse of a 12-year-old girl by an older man, it displays an astonishingly complex, brave moral stance. In every instance, it refuses to settle for the kind of lazy attitudinising that would make a good tabloid front page, and instead creates a taut, shocking and unflinching drama which the Playhouse are rightly proud to stage.

David Harrower’s play is masterful, and Robert Daws as Ray and Dawn Steele as Una are arresting. These are difficult parts, psychologically. Playing a victim of paedophilia runs all the risks of reductive sensationalism, melodrama and shallow psychology. To play a paedophile humanely is perhaps even more difficult. I cannot praise these actors enough for their sensitivity, their responsiveness, their ability to capture from one moment to the next feelings of shame, outrage, misery, regret and – dare it be said? – love. Their deeply sensitive performances pose a great challenge to audiences. It would be possible to leave the theatre after a play like this feeling morally outraged or sanctimonious. Instead, Steele and Daws compel us to leave questioning, thoughtful, upset. In an age where paedophiles are as vilified and loathed as child-killers or witches, this is an artistic and personal feat of greatness.

This is not an easy play to watch or write about. Much can be misconstrued, and without feeling the sympathy which I have felt on stage tonight, my words might seem callous, insensitive and even wicked. But there is a strong sense that both parties are deserving of sympathy. This is not a political judgement or a moral one on a wider scale. But it is an artistic judgement about what happened on stage between 7pm and 9.10pm tonight. When Ray cries, “I’m entitled to something – to live!”, I uncomfortably agreed. When Una says, “You abused me – there is no ‘but'” in response to Ray’s explanations, she is unimpeachably right. When she recalls, smiling, her memory of hoping Ray would bring her chocolate, it is a moment of desperate, childlike naïvety in the face of events. As Ray recounts his attempt to find her, we are forced to question Una’s apparently authoritative perspective.

At every moment we are called upon to interrogate our interpretations and our preconceived ideas of the drama, as well as the statements of the characters before us. The sympathy for the early part of the play lies with Una. Confronting Ray on a stage which is a canteen ominously reminiscent of a school canteen, she is a victim for whom we only have sympathy. We share her outrage and anger. But as the play progresses, Daws wins the audience, subtly, carefully, never playing the monstrous stereotype we might expect and perversely hope for. That we can end the play with sympathy for a man whose acts are undoubtedly immoral and illegal and have caused horrific damage to many lives is a testament to the human power and honesty which this piece exhibits throughout.

The motif which dominates the plays is that of rubbish, and the stage is strewn with litter. This is an important device, magnificently brought out. “They expect other people to clean up after them,” Ray says, putting rubbish in the bin. But both Ray and Una are dissatisfied with their lives being mediated by therapy and counsellors, and this prompts their encounter. No one can clear up after them except them. When the cans, bottles, papers, napkins, cups, burger boxes and scraps of food are tossed gratuitously across the stage, it is cathartic and a feeling of lightness, and – yes – tenderness breaks out between them. At the end of the play, the litter remains, like our moral judgements, untidy. As Una says: “I don’t know what to believe. There is so much to choose from.”

Blackbird presents us with psychology in the face of apparent evil. It is a salutary play for the times we live in.

Jason Millar © 2008

Originally published 23-04-08

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2 comments on “Archive Theatre Review • BLACKBIRD • Oxford Playhouse • 2008

  1. Thank you for posting this to your blog. I found this piece to be an interesting look at controversial, disturbing issues. Matters such as these are often very complex and difficult to discuss, with no easy answers. I am not particularly fond of stark black & white morality. But neither do I think it is healthy for a society or the law to become so fixated on separating innumerable shades of gray from one another that it is nearly impossible to tell right from wrong. There has to be a balance between those two extremes. The background and history of those who commit crimes often is relevant to their prosecution & punishment. At the same time, an individual’s past should not be used as an excuse to abrogate personal responsibility.

  2. First Night Design
    07/26/2014

    You’re absolutely right. It’s a shame that there are not more plays like Blackbird that explore the issues around such subjects. Or, should I say, more producers/commissioners willing to take a punt on such work.

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This entry was posted on 07/21/2014 by in Reviews, Theatre and tagged , , , , , , .
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