“What you don’t know doesn’t harm you”
Not for the first time, Ultz’s design disarms you. You enter the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs to find it done up like a community centre, a circle of functional, grey plastic chairs in the middle of the room, a tea and coffee station off to the side. So begins Nathaniel Martello-White’s new play Torn and as Adelle Leonce’s Angel opens up the family meeting that she has called to work through some particularly pressing issues, you think you’ve got a handle on it.
You haven’t. For though it is stripped back, Torn is a fantastically knotty and complex piece of writing: full of fragmented flashbacks; verbose, overlapping dialogue; actors switching characters, sometimes mid-scene. It’s clear Martello-White has been using his time as a writer on attachment at the Royal Court well, for this is brave and ambitious work, both thoughtfully demanding and thought-provoking, it digs deep into the lengths families will go to to protect their own.
So as Angel steels herself to find out the truth about the abuse she suffered, family member after family member starts to pile in, dragging age-old recriminations and family secrets into the light, preferential treatment questioned and behaviours challenged. And in so far as the truth in concerned, the waters are left murky as the veracity of Angel’s claims is tested and not an easy conclusion to be found as scenes of past and present interact and interlock around the family.
Richard Twyman does well to keep as much clarity as he can but there’s no denying Torn is a challenge – I was left thoroughly engaged, dying to get my hands on the playtext to read and re-read the text; a friend was left a little more bemused. Equally, there’s no doubting how fiercely acted it is – Leonce is a stunning central presence, Indra Ové brilliantly slippery as her mother and Franc Ashman (as her twin), Kirsty Bushell and Lorna Brown all powerfully affecting as various aunts, the intricacies of their competing relationships – and you have to figure them out, nothing is handed to you – an added layer to work through. Bold stuff indeed.