Two white chairs, a white box, a door of glowing light, and three actors with an extraordinary amount of talent. These were the ingredients that director George Rexstrew used to concoct Piccolo Theatre’s debut production, Swallow, that was originally performed at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Swallow is a contemporary play about contemporary issues. It was a highly stylised postmodern conception: the decluttered set with the harsh white lighting focussed all the attention on the actors, whilst the 80 minute running time with no interval allowed for complete audience absorption into the story.
Even the cast appeared pared down. There were only three actors, who were on the stage the whole time and who interacted with no other storyline but each other’s. They played three women who were all battling the loneliness and cruelty of modern life whilst trying to untangle their own muddled existence.
Lined up in a row on the stage at the start, two on chairs and one crouched on a white box, the characters gave their backstories: Sam (Matt Dormer), formally Samantha, transgender and trying to find comfort in his own body; Rebecca (Annie Davison), who has just found out her fiancé has met another woman; and Anna (Steph Sarratt), who hasn’t left her flat in over a year.
With no props but the seating and the door of light, the actors managed to conjure up a captivating story and complex characters who, in only 80 minutes, managed to win my heart with their idiosyncrasies, flaws, and distinct personality traits. Rebecca has a fondness for merlot and telling her doctor to ‘fuck off’; Sam is a good dancer and a ‘smoker-in-training’; and Anna watches nature programmes, except ones about insects, and loves smashing things up in her flat.
All three characters are united by loneliness that was heightened by the small cast, the sparse set, and the door. There were many scenes where Rebecca spoke to Anna through the door, trying to coax her out of her flat, and the wide bar of light that separated them stood as a poignant symbol of the fractured relationships of modern life and the physical and literal distances between people. And each of these characters certainly suffered fractured relationships: Sam, with his estranged family, Rebecca, with her ex-boyfriend, and Anna, with her brother. These were fractured women in all senses, in sexuality, appearance, and mentality, and they find comfort in each other because of the mutual understanding that these cracks can be repaired.
The acting was electric and every word was uttered with raw emotion. Sarratt was a tornado of energy that waned into despondency as her scattered mind tried to cling onto an imaginary world constructed as a comforting escape. Sarratt crouched nymph-like on her box as she conversed with the birds, the quasi-fantastical creature in this world of intense realism. Davison stormed around the stage, fiery eyed and foul-mouthed, but movingly revealed the chinks in her armour when her situation became unmanageable.
Finally, the choice to cast the role of Sam was an interesting one. In the Edinburgh play, the cast were all women, but here Sam was played by a man. Although technically biologically incorrect, it symbolised that this was Sam’s true body, the person he truly was when he drew a beard on his face or called himself a ‘gentleman’. Sam, from the ‘Samantha’ name badge he had to wear at work, to the abuse from others, constantly felt uncomfortable in his own skin. Casting Dormer in the role at least gave some reconciliation to the character’s conflicting identity.
Swallow managed to be both experimental and down to earth. It tackled modern problems in a hyper-real way, which made it refreshing and progressive and showed that Durham continues to be an inventive and dynamic platform for new genres of theatre productions.
Photograph: Piccolo Theatre