Poison at the Orange Tree TheatreCultureTheatre
Losing a child is a scenario regularly used to illustrate a depth of pain unimaginable to those who haven’t experienced it. It’s also one of the most potentially emotive narratives possible, with the danger of cheap melodrama if handled poorly. Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans and director Paul Miller easily avoid the latter with Poison, a delicate, deliberate (if sometimes emotionally detached) evocation of long-lasting grief.
In a sparse waiting room, with a pair of plush benches and naff turquoise carpet that immediately recalls the depressing nature of most public spaces, She (Claire Price) and He (Zubin Varla) have met for the first time in almost ten years to discuss the relocation of the body of their child.
Price has the air of someone used to projecting a veneer of happiness to protect against any enquires into her actual mental state. But this shield has spikes; as the play goes on it is clear She is trying to provoke her ex-husband, trying to rile him into acknowledging the unbearable weight of what lies in between them.
At the start of the play, however, one would never guess Varla’s He was the one that had begun to build a new life. Every line sounds forced out of a weary throat, as if speaking requires too much emotional energy. Despite the superficial signs that He is further along in any kind of grieving process – namely a new, pregnant wife – it’s clear Varla’s character carries wounds that in no way have healed over, and that his Zen pronouncements maybe masking his undealt-with pain.
It is the warmth of the final act that truly registers, not the awkwardness and combativeness of the preceding hour. The couple’s grief is greater felt when sharing memories of parental love than when exhibiting the pinpoint needling of former spouses. The audience finally begins to see how these two people could once have been married – she pricks his self-seriousness; he softens her edges – and just what has been torn down by the cruel randomness of fate. The saddest moments are often wordless; muscle memory kicking in at the sight of a suffering loved one, only for the lost years to quickly intrude between affectionate gesture and reality.
In Poison there is no catharsis. No resolution. There is no great outpouring of grief, or new-found acceptance. Their loss is such an everyday presence, for She especially, that it has become inescapably mundane. But while the flashes of progress are almost imperceptible, they’re there, even if it amounts to nothing more than an overdue embrace and a poorly sung song.
Photo: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard
Poison is on at Orange Tree Theatre from 2nd November until 2nd December 2017. For further information or to book visit the Orange Tree Theatre website here.
Watch the trailer for Poison here: