“In a world of dreams and distractions, holding onto love means tearing it from others.”
“And what would your euphemism be?” she asked slyly. “He was…reserved” he replied. “And mine?”. “She was…disarming”.
And thus began the first relationship of the many that were portrayed by just four people in Mermaids’ production of modern classic “Closer” by Patrick Marber, directed by Daniel Jonusas.
The aforementioned “she” and “he”, nomad Alice and obituary writer Dan, have found themselves thrust together by fate, for better or for worse. The subsequent appearances of “Doctor Larry” and photographer Anna are all that is required to spur the play into action.
The action, it must be said, is little more than a series of illicit affairs, sweet seductions and explosive separations. Practically every scene moves the action on by months or even years down the line, with the loyalties and alliances of each character changing with nearly every jump. I say “loyalties and alliances” because the relations between the characters have a military quality. Hook-ups are artillery strikes, divorce papers are bargaining chips; the romance we are teased with in the first scene becomes an emotional ambush for an unsuspecting audience.
No pressure then for the performers chosen to portray such enigmatic, strategic lovers. Luckily, all four rose to the challenge admirably, finding the nuances in their characters so well that every choice they made were both complete surprises and totally obvious. Bailey Fear’s Dan was by turns charming and infuriating, giving a confident turn as both a convincing romantic lead (a term I use loosely) and a manipulative abuser: two categories which go hand in hand more than we care to admit in storytelling. The battle between both sides that come to define Dan was shown with compelling nuance. Likewise, Hannah Gilchrist’s Alice was apparently assured, but always had a suggestion of something brewing under the surface, which worked well with the hints towards something darker about her throughout the play. Anna, portrayed by Ellie Hope, was even more inscrutable and more than anyone else seemed to hold the cards throughout the narrative, and she knew it. Louis Wilson gave the most sinister performance as volatile Larry with a steely gaze and self-satisfied smirk that made my skin crawl yet didn’t lead to a caricatural villain: his bitterness was never unwarranted and his emotional moments weren’t gratuitous.
Such detail in the performances was important because they are what make or break the play. With just four characters and a plot that relies on the plausibility of their romantic decisions, any sense of unbelievability would have stuck out like a sore thumb, which didn’t happen in this production. The actors kept up well with the fast-paced dialogue, with smooth transitions signalled by pop songs and coloured lights that reflected the mood (well done, technical designer Grace Cowie) and fast wardrobe changes facilitated by Kat Reynders’ suave and timelessly classy costume concept.
However, a large part of the marketing for the play was the fact that it was a multi-media production. There were four screens suspended above the performance space, but they were quite high and difficult to see if you weren’t sitting at the end of the rectangular room. They were used in probably the most memorable sequence featuring some online catfishing between Dan and Larry. Their messages appeared on the screens whilst being spoken aloud, and the room filled with laughter both at the dialogue and the performance. There did seem to be other films playing throughout – I couldn’t really see. My instinct is to complain about the underwhelming “multimedia” aspect, but the performance didn’t really need it to be entertaining in the first place.
The set design, by Caelan Mitchell-Bennett, was key to the fluidity of the performance. A double bed stood conspicuously in the centre of the space, with nothing more than a white fitted sheet. A table stood at one end facing it, bearing a strange assortment of objects, from a Newton’s cradle to cigarettes. The bed would become the unifying factor of all the scenes and, if you want to get all analytical about it, became symbolic of the play’s title. Whether characters sitting on the bed were existing in two different spaces (such as the catfishing scene), lying together on it, or standing at opposite ends of it, the bed always reinforced the relationship between the characters – that is, how close or distant they were. One minute a space of love and affection and the next a no man’s land between bitter enemies, it helped map the changing relations throughout the play and allowed for great physical performance, such as during a strip club scene or during a terrifying physical fight. However sporadic and inaccessible the dialogue may have become at times, the set always held everything together.
All in all, “Closer” was a successful departure from the classic plays that have appeared across St Andrews so far this semester. Its two-hour study of love and lust in all its thrilling complication was both touching and shocking, hilarious and tragic. The attention to the characters’ motivations and personalities kept it alive from beginning to end, and I’m willing to bet it left more than a couple of audience members rethinking everything they thought they knew about love – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.