Theatre Review: Actually @ Trafalgar Studios
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Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 was staged in the West End in 2015, earning an Evening Standard Award for Nicole Kidman in the process. Her current London outing, at Trafalgar Studios, is a smaller affair, dealing with a more private matter than the discovery of DNA, although it is also set on a university campus.
Image credit: Lidia Crisafulli
The campus this time is Princeton, and the issue is one of sexual consent - although it’s less what went on between two people, and more what aspects of their pasts each of them brought to the dorm room that could’ve influenced what came next.
Our two characters are Amber (Yasmin Paige), a “mousy”, socially awkward English literature student from a Jewish family, and Tom (Simon Manyonda), a sexually confident black man who has never really felt like he’s really fit in anywhere (except, maybe, in front of the piano).
The scene is set for racial and class conflict long before Amber and Tom meet in a psychology class, and it’s clear very early on that, in order for the play to be successful, it’s going to need very careful writing to ensure that one side isn’t displayed more sympathetically than the other. In this, Ziegler has presented herself with a huge challenge: fail to make Amber sympathetic, and you’re potentially devaluing the strength it takes to come forward and report a rape. Go too far the other way, and you might end up feeding into untrue and negative stereotypes of young black men. The premise is in danger of overly politicising itself before we’ve even taken our seats.
Of the two protagonists, Amber starts the play as the most problematic - do her comments on race in the opening minutes display a wild lack of sensitivity and cultural awareness, or is she being deliberately provocative? It’s hard to tell, but as we realise as the play unfolds, this is just the beginning of Ziegler’s deliberate plan to make every interaction between the characters murky and riddled with the unsaid. Motivations are rarely, if ever, clear.
Overall, the writing does favour Tom: the black freshman at Princeton, who has always felt marginalised, and loves Mozart and his mother. Tom’s dialogue is funnier and more self-aware than Amber’s, and as a result we see far more of his interior life than we do hers. This is rectified somewhat towards the end, but although we really aren’t supposed to know which way the feather (referencing the notion that the burden of truth is “50 percent plus a feather”) is going to fall Ziegler’s writing has provided us with a strong hint.
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Paige and Manyonda are exceptional in their roles as socially-pressured college students: the play is 85 minutes long, with no interval, and they’re speaking in turn for its entirety. The minimalist set and the fact that they’re on-stage throughout means that neither has anything to hide behind, and they are equally skilled at getting across the confusion and the internal (and external) pressures that come with the first few months of university life. With so much talking, it’s hugely impressive that they manage to get across quite how much there is that has gone unsaid, both between them and in their own internal monologues.
Actually isn’t here to provide the answers you want - and after noting its marketing description (“One Night. Two people. Three truths.”) it’s clear that the “feather” in this situation isn’t going to land on either side. The third side, perhaps, is where the truth lies.
Actually is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 31st August. Find out more here.
Lead image credit: Lidia Crisafulli