Enlightenment @ Hampstead theatre
As the word ‘enlightenment’ means ‘illumination’ and/or ‘explanation’, Enlightenment might seem like a funny choice of title for Shelagh Stephenson’s latest play. There is little enlightenment to be found therein and what there is of it proves, in the end, unwelcome.
Stephenson says in her introduction to the play that what she has written is a story (theatre is about stories) about someone who is looking for a story. Maybe Enlightenment refers instead to the discovery that finding the story is not as simple as it might seem. How do you know, when you have found it, that it is a real story at all? How do you know who knows the story? How do you know you do? Enlightenment is a play about truth and lies; forgetting and remembering. It is a play about what lies between the lines and about what we want to see there.
What Lia and Nick would like to see there is their son. Adam disappeared six months ago in the middle of south- East Asia, leaving behind only an email detailing his plans for the next few days. Since then, the couple have lived every parent’s nightmare a thousand times over. Against a slick, white, curving set, Julie Graham and Richard Clothier struggle to cope. Distanced from each other by their grief and by their determination to keep Adam’s memory alive – Nick choosing to remember him as he was, Lia choosing to remember him as he was, only better – the couple’s desperation at the uncertainty is palpable. Theirs is not, we get the impression, a life in which chaos is welcome and as time goes on and they run out of options that are not ‘sit tight and wait it out’. Lia, in particular, becomes desperate. She consults a psychic; she consults a bottle of wine; she consults a packet of cigarettes and she talks to an invisible Adam on the phone.
Graham, as Lia, makes the most of the emotional rollercoaster and her performance, in her moments of despair, is truly compelling.
Excellent also are Daisy Beaumont, as the cold-blooded TV producer from hell, and Tom Weston-Jones as someone very important but not very nice. Wait and see what happens there.
Stephenson’s play features some truly disturbing moments in which she addresses questions above and beyond life as we know it. If all we know is what we are told, what do we do when we cannot trust those who tell us what we think we want to know? (Breathe…) How can we separate truth from lies and fact from fiction? What would you do if you didn’t even know the facts from the fiction in your own story? Throughout the play we see connections to the outside world – the telephone, computer, television – are compromised, uncertain, even futile, at the worst of times. What if your own memory was just one more thing not to be trusted? What if what you’ve searched so hard to find lets you down? Lia and Nick are let down, repeatedly, until at last it proves too much and Lia snaps.
Enlightenment is a brilliantly written, skilfully performed play. Though there are moments in which I didn’t feel enough tension was built to warrant certain moments of physical and verbal violence, it is not the violence that is important. It is the constant dreaded feeling that something has happened and that something else is going to. The incapability of Lia and Nick, and even Lia’s father, to regain control over a situation spiralling out of control mirrors a fear I think most of us have that something will occur to knock our own lives out of sync. Should it happen, would we want to be enlightened, as they are? You might think you know, but then again, after this, you might not.
Enlightenment runs at Hampstead theatre until 30 October
Kate Richards TheatreFix Guest Editor