by Emily Oliver
Suffragette Theatre’s production of David Harrower’s Blackbird masterfully dissects trauma from both sides of a relationship, forming a cripplingly honest and raw discussion of abuse. The screening of this play will inevitably instigate many important conversations, the highest achievement for a piece of theatre.
From the outset we are immersed by an incredibly intricate set. The attention to detail was excellent and although the rubbish was initially a visual afront, the filth only added to the atmosphere of depravity and emotional ruin. The producers, Olivia Swain and Kate Pesenti, should be commended on creating such a realistic yet visually striking setting. Every aspect of the production made you crave actually being in the room. The limitations of streaming must be acknowledged, and this manifested through a slower build to the beginning of the play. It did not feel as though the actors were immediately energized which is a problem normally aided by the presence of an audience; this is an issue that is also invited by the script and its intention to immediately plunge into the disorientating and disarming world of Ray and Una. Despite this, a rhythm was very quickly attained, and we felt the actors settle, achieving a pacing that was varied and effective throughout.
Daisy Hargreaves, playing Una, captivates in her compelling monologues but truly shines in her moments of silence. Not a single glance is wasted. The complexity of her character was embodied by her shifts in tone; she expressed such defined moments of strength and weakness. Her attention to characterisation was sustained and she brought such a depth of understanding to the performance. Ben Willows’ Ray progressed from closed-off aggression to heart-breaking vulnerability with a mastery and subtlety that is rarely seen on amateur stages. His fearlessness in throwing himself into such a flawed character is admirable.
Hargreaves is effortlessly comfortable every second she is on stage and her naturalism was contrasted by Willow’s more physical and explicit characterisation. They brought different styles and no unified approach, a result of the extended period of individual consideration of the characters and the limited time they had to develop the relationship between them. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. Their chemistry was palpable to the extent that it was hard to look away. By the second half they had created an atmosphere so immersive and achieved such irrevocable commitment to their characters we were no longer watching a play. We were watching a conversation between Ray and Una.
Their use of close-up camera angles meant we could witness the subtleties of Willows and Hargreaves’ continual dedication to the development of their characters. Nevertheless, the changes between the wide shot and the closer angles were often jarring and the framing of Willows meant that we mainly saw the top of his slicked-back hair rather than a clear view of his facial expressions.
The most striking element of the play is the underlying shifts in power and the explicit struggle as they grapple with the impossibilities of truth and memory; these dynamics were perfectly formed under the direction of John Duffett and assistant director Charlie Barnett. Every moment suggests an incredibly detailed approach and an underlying love and respect for the original text. The social-distancing regulations were not only obeyed but superseded, in the way the space between the characters became charged with a palpable energy rather than a need for physical intimacy. In fact, it became more meaningful that they were never able to touch. Our attention was brought to the space and the silence. We were made to consider everything that was unsaid. Everything that remained undone.
The cast and crew of Blackbird as well as the staff of the Assembly Rooms Theatre should be applauded for the challenges they have overcome. They have faced so many seemingly insurmountable obstacles and came out of it with a piece of theatre that is incredible in its own right, all pandemics aside. When you are left paralyzed on your sofa, feeling like you’ve just been put through a washing machine of despair, emotionally bedraggled and exhausted (fighting every instinct to make a pun on Harrower because everyone deserves better than that) you know you’ve seen some good theatre.
It’s seven months in the making. It’s some of the only theatre happening in the country. It’s truly and unequivocally unmissable. The production is available to stream until the end of the day (Saturday the 24th of October).
If you are affected by any of the themes in this play or want to find out more visit The Survivor’s Trust website (thesurvivorstrust.org) and their helpline: 08088 010818.
Image: Suffragette Theatre Company