What We Wish Was True

Article by Gareth K Vile | 17 Feb 2010
  • the city

Watching What We Know, I am fascinated by the central scene, where the grieving Lucy is confronted by a baleful youth who demands food and dispenses gnomic wisdom. It isn’t certain who he is, or why he is dressed like an extra from Life on Mars. For around fifteen minutes, the audience is caught in the same confusion as the characters, who are adrift, in denial, looking for meaning in apparently random events.

Unfortunately, this is a play, and the next scene, a fractious dinner party, makes it all clear. Lucy’s denial of the death of her loving partner plunged her into an incomprehensible world. One simpering Christian and an unpleasantly no-nonsense atheist later and Lucy has achieved a small degree of closure. In the theatre, tensions are set up for resolution. We learn, we applaud, we go home.

Pamela Carter is one of Scotland’s best playwrights. Her work is intelligent and unafraid to actually comment on real life. But What We Know is hamstrung by convention, and the special touches – live cooking on stage, the loaded intimacy of the final conversation between Lucy and her lover – are dwarfed by the necessity of creating a beginning, middle and end. And apart from the heroine, the characters are little more than sketches, leaving this a slight piece when the content – death and the aftermath – demands grandeur.

My special pleading is that I lost a close friend recently, in the same mysterious circumstances as Lucy. We’d been chatting on MSN, the next day I got an email telling me when the memorial service was being held. Mourning is fragmented, intruding when Facebook invites me to get back in touch with her, or the vast romantic conspiracy that we shared reminds me of her. What We Know, perhaps kindly, bundles grief into a package of shock, denial and acceptance. The script makes these emotions pat, predictable.

Then we have The City. When the final scene features a speech that can be read as an apology for the terrible writing of the previous hour, delivered without conviction and lacking meaningful characterisation, it is as if my fears about the script have been realised for once and all. The City is the final point of the revolution that Beckett began, a play about the banality of suburban life that is banal. But while Beckett, and his heir Sarah Kane, grappled with the absences that leave a shadow, The City is content to roll out a series of incoherent episodes, leading nowhere and as trivial as the lives they describe.

Along with Clutter Keeps Company, a worthy yet predictable examination of the life of a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, these two plays emphasise my reasons for distrusting the script as a foundation for engaging performance. There is no senses of risk, of drama: the theatre becomes a safe place for the exercise of emotions, a drafty school room for adults.


What We Know

Traverse until 27 Feb

The City

Tron until March 6