Saturday, February 03, 2018

After The End - fearing the fallout while being trapped in a bunker with a sociopath survivalist (Lyric Theatre, Belfast + New Theatre, Dublin)

A childhood visit to the old Lyric Theatre to watch the stage version of When The Wind Blows is a memory to which I frequently return. The earnest preparations of Jim and Hilda Bloggs for a nuclear attack were followed by their subsequent confusion as the mature couple tried to navigate their way through the perplexing instructions to live through this extraordinary event.

Dennis Kelly's After The End goes to the other end of the age spectrum and is the latest play by the Vile Bodies theatre company. Fallout from a nuclear attack is not the only thing to be feared when Louise wakes up and finds herself trapped in an underground shelter with Mark, a less-than-valued work colleague. They'll need to stay inside for two weeks until the radiation levels and danger subsides.

While survivalist Mark prepared for this eventuality and chose to rescue the woman he fancied from the work do they were attending in a pub when the suitcase device exploded, it's all a bit of a shock for Louise. The personality clashes they experienced before being thrust together are made worse rather than being resolved by their new-found proximity.

At first Mark's quirks and off-colour ramblings can be dismissed, but the one-sided affection drains yet more blood from his brain, and the seeds of the darkness ahead are sown early on in the dialogue. When the violence comes, it is sustained and brutal - emotional, physical and sexual - and for many in the audience this was an harrowing piece of theatre to witness.

Maria Guiver and Paul Livingstone show off their verbal dexterity as they get their tongues around the staccato repetition of lines, talking over each other, and the verbal ticks of each character as they work through the shock and adapt to their enclosed living. (Livingstone is an alumnus of the Lyric's Drama Studio programme before attending The Lir Academy along with Guiver where they first performed this play.)

The internal elastic bands that perhaps hold each characters' emotions and sense of wellbeing snap at different rates, and both Guiver and Livingstone show immense control as they evolve Louise and Mark over the one hundred minute no interval production. Director Emily Foran holds her nerve and does not shy away from realism in the most extreme scenes.

The diminutive size of Jack Scullion's set creates an intensity in this two hander that is theatrically interesting but emotionally draining. (It's brings back memories of watching Disco Pigs in the same theatre space.) An hour into the play, when Louise was trying to ground down rice by bashing it with a can, I really wanted her to do the same to Mark to end the show and give both her and me release. As one character said: "this is what you're making me do".

Yet the playwright and the cast have one further twist with a final scene which sees the couple reunite and demonstrates the brokenness of Louise and the complex post-traumatic stress disorder she now lives with.

After The End is a superbly executed piece of theatre with some remarkable acting. As the show ended, it was heart-warming - and my heart demanded no end of warming - to see the two actors step out of their bunker and step out of their characters, clutching each other's hands to take their bow together.

The question I was left with after the end of the performance was not about the quality of the production but the reason it was written, and the reason it is staged with some regularity. Dark psychological thrillers like After The End and Unhome are certainly disturbing and unsettling.

The agony of watching these plays nearly drowns out the issues they raise about how our opinions about world affairs and terrorism are shaped, and how they affect what we do as well as what we believe.

The bulk of After The End could be construed as examining the way we shape our own behaviours, and shape other people's reactions and retaliation to our less savoury actions. Is it at all realistic to consider that Louise have resisted Mark's influence over her soul?

But when you walk out of the theatre, the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach lingers well into the next day (at the time of writing) and it's what's seen through the window into the on-stage trauma rather than the mirror that the production is holding up to the audience that dominates.

After the End continues in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until Saturday 3 February and then transfers to The New Theatre in Dublin where it will run between Tuesday 6 and Saturday 24 February.

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