'Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die' Act V, Scene III, Romeo and Juliet
Fresh off the West End stage, People, Places and Things is enjoying a successful UK tour which brought it to the Bristol Old Vic this week. Co-produced by Headlong and the National Theatre, Duncan Macmillan’s new play follows the journey of ‘Emma’ from addiction through recovery, and explores ideas about truth, spirituality and the boundary between reality and the mind. The play opens powerfully with the harrowing moment of disorientation when Emma disintegrates in the midst of a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull, which we later discover triggers her ‘surrender’ to rehab. This establishes the atmosphere of chaos and bewilderment which governs the rest of the performance, following Emma’s painful pursuit of recovery as she negotiates rehab and wills herself, with difficulty, to re-engage with ‘reality’, whatever that may mean.
The most striking aspect of this production was its success in inviting the audience into the disorientation of ‘using.’ The lights pulse and fizz as we watch Emma do a line of speed in the reception of the clinic where she will seek to end her addiction. Like a ‘skipping CD’, we share our warped perception of reality with Emma herself. We are bundled along with her as she seems to float between scenes; the set changes are fluid and dreamlike, and as the ensemble manoeuvre the desks and beds of the clinic, the vacant Emma weaves mindlessly between them, bewildered and seemingly detached from any sense of time. Characters’ voices are echoed and paired with tightly executed slow motion movement to show how her fragile grip on reality falters. Projections on stage give the impression of the wall tiles crumbling away before our eyes and as Emma is dragged through the tortuous process of withdrawal, our understanding of the world of the play is confounded further. In a powerful physical movement sequence, several editions of ‘Emma’ seem to crawl out from all parts of the stage and we see her writhe and suffer in another moment of suspended temporality.
Much of the play’s action takes place in group therapy; a comic cliché of rehab, the happy clappy group of recovering addicts contrasts sharply with the overwhelming moments of disorder and serves as a candid showcase of individuals whose shared problems stem from a myriad of unexpected causes. Whilst giving interesting insight into the phenomenon of addiction, the dialogue sagged a little with the introduction of this scenario towards the end of the first half, as the exciting pace of the first half hour gave way to a series of static confessionals. Yet perhaps this change forced us to share Emma’s initial trepidation and hesitance to involve herself in the process.
Lisa Dwyer Hogg is outstanding in her presentation of Emma’s struggle; she is arguably the main attraction of the production, as the power of the piece relies on her true to life presentation of a woman in crisis. The success of the play, however, certainly lies in its stark corruption of the world as we know it. We are transported into the world as perceived by Emma’s mind and it is as though we too are experiencing the repeated drug use and withdrawal she suffers from. While this could easily have been conveyed in an overly-laboured way, the sensation is subtle and lifelike. This is owed largely to the atmospheric sound design which pulses throughout and heightens the key moments with intense cacophonies, which are both jarring and seductive.
If you go to see this production, you will leave the theatre feeling startled and intrigued. There is no doubt that People, Places and Things is worthy of the critical attention it has received; both a stunning spectacle and highly informing, it unsettles all that you thought you knew about addiction and packs a dazzling punch.
Flora Snelson, English Literature student