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Tremendous new plays Beginning and John offer differing looks at our desperation for connection

David Eldridge and Annie Baker’s works use contrasting tactics of realism and surrealism.

The Prime Minister recently gave Tracey Crouch ministerial responsibility for dealing with social isolation. Perhaps the flagship initiative should be coach trips of the lonely – with post-show drinks to compare notes – to two tremendous plays that address sympathetically our desperation for connection, though with contrasting tactics of realism and surrealism.

Beginning (runs until 24 March) opens with an image so naturalistic it could have been drunkenly posted on Instagram. Laura and Danny are the last two more or less standing after a Saturday night flat-warming that has stretched into next morning – between 2.50am and 4.30am, to be precise, the action measured in real time on a kitchen clock. Danny’s shirt bears a stain that looks like blood or claret but proves to be a different substance with comforting associations.

It’s Laura’s flat; Danny keeps meaning to call a cab. But they go on drinking, as blurting becomes flirting, and old hurts and new hopes are exposed. The will-they-won’t-they romance is familiar, but digital dating gives David Eldridge’s a fresh edge. Conversation often consists of the couple quoting past contributions to Twitter and Facebook. “I wish I’d met you online,” Danny says, tellingly. “It would have been easier.”

By coincidence, a superlative revival of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party opened the previous week at the London theatre named after the dramatist, and it’s clear in Beginning how much Eldridge has learned from Pinter, especially the way in which small talk can reveal or conceal large truths. Pinter also taught us to be sceptical about what characters say, and in Beginning hangs the possibility that Laura and Danny may have tailored aspects of their anecdotes to their goals for the evening.

Sustaining a single dialogue for 100 minutes is tough, but Eldridge perfectly times the release of detail and director Polly Findlay paces the exchanges impeccably. Justine Mitchell’s Laura radiates sexy self-esteem, while Sam Troughton’s Danny projects crumpled defeat, but the scales rebalance as they speak. Couples leaving the theatre were arguing over whether Eldridge is finally kinder to the guy, but good plays don’t wear their meaning like a lapel badge.

Beginning earned its West End transfer through acclaim at the National’s Dorfman auditorium, which is now hosting an American import, Annie Baker’s John (runs until 3 March). This is another play about disconnected people, in which each individual section plays out in real time on a clock. But the fact that the hands are moved forward between the nine scenes by the main character – who also opens and closes red velvet curtains at the start and end of the three acts – announces an approach far from iPhone photorealism.

The set might be an installation in a surrealist exhibition: in what seems to be a living room stand three caricature-Parisian café tables, although the walls more suggest a museum of childhood, crammed with dolls, trolls and other bric-a-brac, including an illuminated jukebox that, unusually, plays Bach and Offenbach.

The date, unexpectedly, is the present. This antique milieu is a Pennsylvania B&B, handy for the Gettysburg battle sites. A young couple, Elias and Jenny, have come to tour the haunted fields but become more involved in a personal civil war. Health teas and unnerving bursts of mysticism are dispensed by proprietress Mertis, a hunched eccentric portrayed indelibly by Marylouise Burke. Mertis has a blind friend, Genevieve, whom we occasionally see – once as a brilliantly executed shock – but she also mentions many unseen people who, in a post-Pinter way, may have questionable provenance.

In The Flick, Baker’s 2016 National Theatre play about a failing cinema, the characters sometimes left the audience alone, a practice as professionally counter-intuitive as babysitters nipping out to a nightclub. During one key sequence, the whole cast was offstage while we watched the set.

In John, this hyperrealism – rooms, after all, spend much of their time empty – is taken even further. At one point, the audience is deliberately confused over whether the play has stopped; many patrons, exiting the auditorium, had to scramble back for the pay-off.

Another of the play’s ploys is to disguise its genre. The set-up echoes horror movies, then seems to float towards a ghost tale. But, ultimately, it is about love as a blood sport, offering, through Jenny and Elias (magnetic young actors Anneika Rose and Tom Mothersdale) a devastating portrait of a relationship as a dangerous game, its rules complicated, as in Beginning, by electronic connectivity.

The 36-year-old Baker feels like the most significant American dramatist since David Mamet. The National must surely stage her play, The Antipodes, which is set at a corporate brainstorming session, and was premiered in New York last year. 

David Eldridge
Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2

Annie Baker
National Theatre, London SE1

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”