“There are things which you’ll have done or which you’ll do which live with you for ever and ever”
You know you’re in trouble when a play describes itself as ‘an elliptical triptych’, making a virtue of your own obscureness sets up a challenge from the off and such is the case here with Simon Stephens’ new play Wastwater, directed by Katie Mitchell for the Royal Court (‘wast’ rhyming with cost in case you’re unsure). Three scenes, three locations on the edge of Heathrow Airport, three different couples all on the cusp of life-changing decisions, no interval. (This is a review of the final preview FYI)
Given Katie Mitchell’s penchant for mixing things up, her direction here is relatively straightforward. There’s no infuriating running across the stage, wrapping things up in plastic bags or her video work here, indeed the only notable innovation is a pair of seriously impressive set changes in Lizzie Clachan’s design which creates three strikingly different sets for the three scenes. And they need to be different as the scenes are self-contained, each couple appears just the once as their stories unfold and then Stephens moves us onto the next.
In the first scene, Linda Bassett is rather marvellous (her performance in The Road to Mecca last year was one of my favourites of the year) and well matched with Tom Sturridge’s awkward but well-intentioned foster son (Stephens and Sturridge evidently have an affinity, as Sturridge appeared in the original cast of Punk Rock) who is leaving home to start a new job in Canada. There’s a sweetness to this scene which I found endearing as she struggles to accept his decision to leave and he gets a fuller understanding of the women who has looked after him for so long. The second has an interesting pairing of Paul Ready and Jo McInnes (most recently directing Red Bud upstairs here at the Royal Court) as a couple on the verge of an illicit tryst in a hotel, two damaged souls circling each other in the search for solace which takes a surprising turn as darker truths are revealed and given intriguing life by the actors.
he third takes a bit of a jarring turn with a much more illogical scene with the vicious-tongued Sian thrashing out a deal with a cowed Jonathan, again all is not quite what it seems but Amanda Hale and Angus Wright struggle with these characters who are oddly written in terms of the way they behave given their situation. But the biggest problem I had with the play was the way in which these vignettes hang together. With gossamer-thin links between the narratives: a character referenced in one appears in another; others are mentioned by different people; Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen pops up a couple of times, there’s the suggestion of connections but these are never fleshed out or given real meaning and beyond the set-up as written in the publicity, each make ‘a choice that will define the fallout of their future’, there is little really to suggest genuine coherence here, the ever-present Terminal 5 and the noise of airplanes above just isn’t enough.
There are moments when it feels like the play could take an interesting turn like an episode of Doctor Who (is the sky meant to be that colour…?) or when things go a bit Reservoir Dogs, but it never does, staying on its oblique course failing to provide motivation or definition of its subjects. Likewise there are a couple of moments of misdirection in Stephens’ writing which provoked a little interest but for the most part it trundles on its elusive path, feeling like three jigsaw pieces that don’t quite fit together. I don’t mind being made to work hard in the theatre despite what some people may think, but I don’t think Stephens offers any clues here and is basking a little too much in the wilfully obscure: like why is scene 1 set on June 25th yet the other two on June 23rd, all at 9pm? Perhaps the answers are there but Mitchell’s production does little to illuminate them.
Wastwater may be the deepest lake in England but in the pursuit of artistic depth here, we were just left bewildered as my companion for the evening observed. Not baffled or confused because it is fairly clear what is going on, but completely bamboozled as to what is trying to be achieved here. It is well acted, it looks great and there’s some lovely writing here too, but to what effect, I have no idea: I really do look forward to hearing what others make of this.