Rogues & Vagabonds

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

Archive Review • THE NIGHT SHIFT • BAC, London [tour] • 2005

bacTheatre and dreams make frequent bed fellows and their love-act is often fecund and beautiful. Strindberg’s Dream Play, revived this year in Katie Mitchell’s stunning and unsettling production at the National, penetrates the world of one man’s dreams — as he falls asleep at an office desk — and allows the entire audience to dance through the shifting, surreal landscapes of his sleeping mind. It doesn’t ponder on what the dreaming means to the dreamer — on what in reality it indicates about his past life — but sensually leaves speculation to the theatre-goer after the show.

In contrast, Mark Murphy takes a deictic, psychoanalytic approach, in his newly-penned, self-contained production The Night Shift. The subject of the play is dreaming, or what is termed “parasomnia”, but this is more a matter for discussion within the drama, than for creating a dream-like theatrical experience.

Indeed, Murphy seems preoccupied with the psychological condition, and presents it through the character of a damaged, young woman with two names (Alice and the more thematic Luna) and the anthem “I do dreams”. She certainly does nightmares, physically performing them in her sleep to the alarm of her boyfriend, and later describing this “acting dreams out” as “the one safe place to go insane”. It is through these episodic flashes of demonstrative dreaming that the character’s “back-story” begins to unfold, and we learn that she is the victim of child abuse on a horrific scale.

Meanwhile, there’s an older man in the secure unit of a psychiatric hospital with his own prescribed mantra: “I will do all I can to help myself get well and I will help others to assist me in that goal”. The assistance comes through monthly interviews with a sleek young counsellor called Helen, who admits to sharing his addiction to alcohol, and hints at another troubled past. Through her visits, ‘doctor’ and ‘patient’ bond, and their relationship starts to break its professional barriers, to reveal what links this man to the parallel scenario in the play.

Helen learns that he is in fact a desperate father longing to see his daughter, and — through a sinister phone call late at night from the carer who cares too much — the stories bleed into one another, leaving Helen to realize that her analysand doesn’t care for her at all. As she is cast aside, Luna/Alice appears in the mental institution to confront her lunatic Dad about what he used to do to her at nights, moreover, that he “did murder on (her) mummy”, and the vulnerable perpetrator is reduced to tears. It is only after this painful, atoning encounter that Alice is able to get on with her life, and we finally see her sipping tea with her loving partner, joking and play-acting horror movie screams as if it was all simply a nasty dream.

As far as plots go, it’s pretty predictable stuff, and belongs more to the genre of one-hour TV specials than the more demanding nature of theatre. Notwithstanding, the way the piece is presented seems to be assuredly theatrically conscious, with severe, expressive lighting (by Lizzie Powell), warped, half ironic mood music (by Nathaniel Reed) and Murphy’s expert eye for stage movement, with the actors ritually circling the space like hands on a clock-face.

But this stylish visual clarity, together with modish, throwaway naturalistic dialogue that’s sometimes beautifully observed and funny (like “we had the first soda stream in the street”), do not account for the more conceptual flaws in the show. There are two bizarre breaks in the action when both Alice and her father independently turn to confront the audience — Alice militantly interrogating one member of the public for his name — then to continue with their roles as if this never happened. Asides and audience interaction are crucial to the survival of theatre, but here the devices are used incoherently, ostentatiously and do nothing to serve the drama but confuse our relationship with it. For in the rest of the play, the audience is put very pointedly in the “the safe place of the sane”, sat in the dark, shut off from the night’s scene shifts by a sweeping white curtain, which at one point is utilized to create shadow puppets of the actors behind it, and thus detach us further from what is being felt.

Essentially, Murphy stitches up his audience as the voyeurs of a rather tacky thriller, perhaps in favour of aesthetics, to show that he can make cinematic effects on stage. One minute we are peeping into a young woman’s bedroom, watching her undress, watching her become hysterical in the night, but never permitted to truly enter her mad, but potentially empathetic world; the next we are the hidden observers of the psychiatric unit, never let in, continually flung out, and knowing what’s coming way before we are allowed to go there with the play itself. And yet, amidst this frustrated voyeurism, we are expected for two rash moments to change our outlook: to become complicit in this sordid study, which can barely be stretched out as a story, and be spoken to like we’re in it! It’s irresponsible directing, and consequently creates bathos.

I felt nothing while Catherine Dyson worked hard to expose the terrible secrets of her character’s childhood; a strong actress clearly committed to the act, she is much better suited to her more clinical role as the therapist. While she screamed and shivered, I began to feel a sense of “What am I doing here? Why am I listening to this? Does she know I’m here?” These are questions which become distracting and dull in a play that boasts of being hard-hitting and brave. I sat there longing for danger and was finally met with a conservative conclusion that seemed to suggest all the shock and shake-up of the subject matter could be sweepingly ignored for the sake of a popcorn ending: there are not really these lonely young women out there “crying in the night”, and in any case, they all wake up with kind, sensitive boyfriends and live happily ever after while their Dads remain locked away. It didn’t really conclude anything other than a sense that this was not such stuff as dreams are made of — dreams of theatre at any rate.

This play brings out the trauma of Träume but ultimately seems frightened to face its fears and is more interested in being “slick”. It’s a shame, because there’s some lovely acting from Jason Thorpe, which comes from a place more heartfelt than what surrounds him. If only he would just stop tidying the trendy white bed every five minutes and reading out sections of psychology books; if only Murphy would stop pressing filmmaker buttons (the jewellery box theme music to wrap up a play about child abuse must owe something to Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen), and drop the superficial concerns with what is “cool”…

The critical acclaim the production has received from its run in Edinburgh is more than enough to attract a London audience and make this review rather un-cool. But for me there’s a sense of a piece that is smug with its success when there’s still a lot of work that could be done. As is often the case with modern art, we are told things are cool, and believe it, when deep down we know they are merely numb.

Diana Bailey © 2005

Originally published on R&V on 04-09-005

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