MARTHA. by Ben Willows is a prime example of a play borne out of our times. Lee, portrayed by Harrison Newsham, and Amy, played by Isabella Thompson, reunite after six years of silence to ‘catch up,’ opening old wounds of guilt and heartache. The production pays homage to a scene sadly familiar to us all: two despondent faces on yet another Zoom call. The gallery view allows us to examine the revealing reactions and interplay between the characters in real-time, characterising the audience as unknowing flies on the wall witnessing the intimate dialogue. However, the static image upon the screen could have been played with more. The largest pitfall of this zoom recording was the mismatched eye line of the performers, with their gaze directed downwards for most of the play. This meant that some of the most emotive passages of Ben Willows’ perceptive writing were lost in the digital platform.
Yet the format was utilised in other areas. Willows refused to ignore the online barrier and indeed the state of the world that catalysed it. Without feeling predictable or resorting to nauseating jokes about the idiosyncrasies of lockdown life, the play felt comfortable within its setting, allowing one jab at online learning to form the crux of the play: “You just can’t connect”.
The performances were well contrasted, Thompson’s sparkling and anxious energy was balanced by Newsham’s understated performance. At times, however, Newsham’s calm base level fell short on the delivery of his most dramatic lines intended to propel the plot. Honor Douglas and Ben Johanson’s directing duo proved astute in navigating the complex evolution of the dynamic between Lee and Amy. They allowed for pace to build as the plot unravelled, whilst carving out significant moments for silence — a brave directorial decision for this format that paid off hugely.
The play’s most impressive moments are to be found in its discussion of sexuality; a complex theme to tackle, yet MARTHA. did so skilfully with care and respect. Thompson’s Amy expresses a deep-seated rage at her sexual identity being pigeon-holed by others based purely on her outward performance. Lee is confused, surprised and angry at first, before actually listening to Amy and subsequently understanding her. Thompson strides through the challenging monologue with confidence and poise, charting her way through the barbaric notion that bisexuality is ‘just a phase’ with gravitas and sharp comic timing. Newsham’s philosophically-orientated Lee responds with the notion of selfishness: using others to explore one’s sexuality, gaining a better understanding of one’s self, but at what cost? MARTHA. demonstrates this cost, yet also provides its remedy: communication.
From a time marred by disconnection and loss, MARTHA. channels familiar themes through new conceits. Whilst organising a Zoom call for a discussion of this nature without the presence of alcohol may be a bizarre move on Lee’s behalf, it demonstrates how lockdown has pushed all of us into severe introspection, forcing us to confront ourselves in a whole new way. The script links this pressure to notions of self-punishment that have haunted many over the past year. MARTHA.’s reach links the self-loathing of not having finished that screenplay you started last March, and the self-pity of pretending to isolate with a fake romantic partner, with the humour in having an argument on a platform where you can mute the other person.
Overall, MARTHA. does not tackle mass political division or include any fast-paced car chases, but it does magnify the minutiae of the human heart, dissecting its insecurities and incongruities that lockdown intensified for all of us. In this way, Willows’ play truly is a tale of our times.
Image: Emily Oliver via First Theatre Company