By BRUCE DENNILL
Blackbird / Directed by Vanessa Cooke / Momentum Theatre, State Theatre, Pretoria
Blackbird does not – spoiler alert! – have a happy ending. Neither does it have a happy middle or happy beginning, which doesn’t make it something to avoid, though it’s worth being aware of the challenges of David Harrower’s script
Ray (Lionel Newton) and Una (Robyn McHarry) are a man and a woman who have not seen each other for 15 years. They get re-acquainted in a nameless corporate building, in a clapped-out backroom cluttered with litter – both physical and emotional, dwarfed as they engage with each other by a massive, two storey-high door, the inspired work of set and lighting designer Wilhelm Disbergen. The door has the effect of making the characters seem smaller than they really are, like children.
This is intended, and this is just one of the mechanisms that funnels audience attention back to the play’s core theme: sexual abuse, and how perspective changes the impact of a relationship in which that abuse occurs.
When Ray and Una first met, he was 40 and she was 12. They had a brief relationship that, in different ways, ruined their lives. The entire play is the two of them talking through their past, unveiling who they are now and explaining the tortuous paths that have led to their uncomfortable reunion.
The script requires Newton and McHarry to make repeated interjections into each other’s dialogue, which gives sections of the play a stilted, fragmented feel. It’s in keeping with the theme of the play, but it feels slightly forced. Aside from that, though, the duo’s performances are excellent, particularly Newton, who must be at once frail and threatening; a monster and a laughing stock. Both actors convince as deeply damaged beings, accessible only to a degree before what audiences see becomes too unsettling.
Blackbird answers no questions and makes no effort to: it simply presents an incredibly messy situation and invites onlookers to draw their own conclusions, heart-breaking as they might be.
Powerful. Difficult. Worth seeing.