In one of the smallest theatres in London, a play whose main characters do not budge from their chairs slowly unfurls. You might think (at least if you have never heard of Samuel Beckett) that Something in the Air would have limited scope. But as Peter Gill’s drama spools back and forward in time it conjures a neglected world, touches rare emotions, gains in consequence.
Finding gravity in small scenes is one of Gill’s talents. For almost 60 years he has brought to his explorations of love between men, and his patient examination of non-grand lives, an unusual combination of qualities: sophistication and simplicity, stillness and passion, a disregard for dogged literalness and a meticulous documentary detail. Directing his own work (here in collaboration with Alice Hamilton), he sets up dance-like patterns between actors and seems to choreograph silences.
The two men summon scenes from the postwar left: Paul Robeson, Aldermaston marches, women called Muriel, admirable Quakers
Two men in their late 70s sit side by side in chequered socks and patchwork quilt. Both look frail, as if they have been propped in their chairs for display. The evening’s success is largely dependent on the marvellous ability of the actors who play them – Ian Gelder and Christopher Godwin – to be at once precise and elusive. They seem to be sharing a dream.
They look back on lives both intertwined and separate, eloquent about encounters when homosexual love was deemed a criminal activity, frank about devotion and betrayal. They summon scenes from the postwar left – I thrilled to this, as it was a spot-on evocation of a world I knew through my parents: Paul Robeson, Aldermaston marches, women called Muriel, admirable Quakers, Kathleen Ferrier’s voice. The motor of the memories is sexual longing, embodied here by James Schofield and Sam Thorpe-Spinks, who appear as the men’s young lovers: they don’t have much to do, but pull off a strangely of-the-period look – and, oh, how they gleam.
A niece, the radiantly matter-of-fact Claire Price, and a son, the terrifyingly down-to-earth Andrew Woodall, come to visit in what, it becomes evident, is a nursing home. Busybodying about their relatives, they begin to be a bit busy about each other. Mostly, though, they encircle the two men with their own misunderstanding. For love has not died. One elderly hand reaches out for another. It is angrily wrenched away by the son: it is extraordinary how brutal this single gesture seems. Price’s character protests that this affection is simply friendship. A closing gesture – silent, not spelt out – shows what depths of feeling she has missed. Nothing stated, all implied: “something in the air”.
David Farr’s new play promises stranger, spookier fare than that offered by Gill. Actually, the notion of the unnerving in A Dead Body in Taos, a blend of disturbed family relations and spooky technological interventions, is fairly traditional – you might say, eternal.
A woman’s corpse is found in the New Mexico desert. Her estranged daughter comes from England to identify the body and is confronted not, as she half-anticipates, by a murder, but by a startlingly continuing existence. Her mother, Kath, had become involved with a biotech corporation that garnered individuals’ memories and archival photographs to create cyborgs. She has left all her money (bitcoin, presumably) to the institute and taken advantage of the facilities to become a digital version of herself. Will robomum and her daughter be able at last to bond?
Farr’s drama, in part inspired by Adam Curtis’s documentaries, is ingeniously multifocused, though not fully energised as intellectual inquiry or emotional investigation. Rachel Bagshaw’s staging – for Fuel, the non-fossilised, ever-burning-bright production company – is exemplary.
Sound designers Ben and Max Ringham have, over the last few years, become increasingly important to the stage, guiding audiences through stories with music and noises that are never simply effects, but extra layers of sensations. Here, they mark generational change – hippy softness and punk roars – and retune the mood of each scene, with quietly threatening drums and an electronic zing. Ti Green’s set is both mystical and technological: a huge wooden frame, like a doorway to another world, is outlined fluorescently; a pale background with shifting lines evokes the canvases of Agnes Martin, who built a cabin in Taos and who died there; she appears, still and meditative, as an inspirational force.
Crucially, Eve Ponsonby gives a compelling central performance as insufficient mother and avatar; all in white, pale faced, hair unleashed; part Isadora Duncan, part Florence of the machine. Her digital incarnation is the last of many reinventions: she is seen as discontented daughter, innovative painter, Esalen follower and student activist – present at Kent State University in the 70s when students protesting against the escalation of the Vietnam war were shot by national guardsmen. The best argument against digital enhancement is the ability of human beings to generate their own change. It is an argument an actor makes every time she steps on stage.
Star ratings (out of five):
Something in the Air ★★★★
A Dead Body in Taos ★★★