Chapter, Cardiff, Tues 4 Sept 2007, 8pm, £3 on the door
Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, Thurs 6 Sept, 7.30pm. £3
Ben – Dean Rehman
Abby – Lisa Palfrey
The Mercy Seat
|These script-in-hand rehearsed readings – and impresario Michael Kelligan is in his xth year of them with the start of this new season – can be very hit or miss. After all, how do you get across the complexities, the depths, the tensions of a rich dramatic text when the actors and director have spent only a couple of days together and the show is performed in a room with no space for a set and with only minimal lighting, the audience on top of you, with a play probably very few if any know.. ?Ask Gareth Potter and his two performers, Dean Rehman and Lisa Palfrey, who between them produced one of the most electric, absorbing, exciting and rewarding nights at the theatre we’ve seen for some while.
They started with a controversial, witty, sardonic, cynical, multi-layered – and, it must be said, filthy – script from American dramatist and film director Neil LaBute, but the intensity of the performances was simply astounding, with Potter excelling himself in his ability to get out of these two fine actors such conviction and subtlety in only a couple of days’ rehearsal.
The Mercy Seat is a play that seems only to have had one professional production in the UK (at the Almeida), despite having a had one sell-out season in New York, where Sigourney Weaver starred as Abby, the older woman with a younger lover.
The reason may be that it is indeed a singularly American play and one that I doubt any non-American audience can fully appreciate: it is, after all, set on the day after the attack on the twin towers, when everything changed for that nation (and, of course, we’re told, for the world).
For this couple the aftermath of September 12 2001 was indeed a day when everything changed, because the previous momentous day Ben was not at work in the World Trade Center as everyone supposed but was in her nearby apartment making love to his mistress Abby – who also happened to be his boss.
For Ben the event – signified in the basic set of a red sofa and scattering of ash everywhere – represented an opportunity to start a new life with Abby, leaving his wife and kids believing him dead, an involuntary “hero”.
For Abby, it’s something different, a sense that things have for sure changed, and that maybe it is an opportunity not to deceive and run but to face the truth and come to terms with reality. While both protagonists share a gobsmacking selfishness, there is also the play’s insistence that Americans confront things as they are, rather than retreat into more self-fictionalising and comforting mythologizing, and with its theme of betrayal and self-obsession it’s a critique of American insularity.
I suspect we here cannot really get under the skin of this provocative play as much as New Yorkers, but it does provide enough utterly to engage us (despite the stifling heat of the venue which seemed to emulate a stifling New York summer) and we can only be grateful to Gareth Potter for discovering it and persevering with his desire to stage it in some form in Cardiff.
Ben and Abby are to an extent recognisable archetypal characters in American drama: the bickering bitchy couple who seem obsessed by self-interest, sex and power – think Edward Albee to Neil Simon – and LaBute, opportunistic as ever, seems to think at times he can get by on an easy wit and extended pornographic description, but by gosh does this make for zingy and crackling drama.
Rehman shows again that on form (and, it seems, especially when playing moody Americans) he can be a remarkable actor, his timing here excellent, his portrayal of a confused, insecure, not very likeable but very human man utterly convincing.
And the always-excellent Lisa Palfrey is, well, just perfect as the domineering, sarcastic, abused and abusing fellow-victim of love and lust who you just know will win out in the end – sort of. I can only express my amazement at how she has created this woman, with her sneers, her ambition, her materialism, her hurt, her tenderness, her sexuality, her dignity, in a mere two days.