That Face: looking beyond the facade

Srionti Maitra talks to the cast and crew of Bailey Theatre Company’s ‘That Face’

“It’s a harrowing play, but nuanced – if you really want to get under people’s skin, you need to use the stiletto rather than the sledgehammer,” says playing Hugh, in Bailey Theatre Company’s production That Face, the critically acclaimed 2007 play by Polly Stenham. I settle into a very plush leather sofa as the cast and crew enthusiastically discuss the finer points of the play.

The action hinges on the toxic symbiosis of Henry, a teenage alcoholic, with his mother Martha, a manipulative enabler. It deals with addiction, family, and what Stenham calls ‘emotional violence’, contextualised by the farce of the middle class utopia. The rendering will not draw inspiration from any previous star studded versions, reveals director Nikhil Vyas. “It’s going to be stripped down, minimalistic.” The venue of the performance is St John’s chapel, replete with warm light, clean lines, and a small space that implicates the audience in the action. Carrie Gaunt, in the role of Martha, joined the cast only a few days ago. Chilling in performance as she is delightful to speak to, Gaunt spoke about what the venue lends to the play: “There’s this acute feeling of being drawn into the action. The set is so small that by default, you feel like you’re intruding, like you’re watching something you’re helpless to stop.”

This voyeuristic feeling is further heightened by the vague and disturbing sexual undercurrent to Martha and Henry’s relationship. The crew was quick to dismiss the Oedipus complex as being a focus in the play, Gaunt going so far as to say that the dependency was rather Stockholm syndrome, and assistant director Ambika Mod interjecting that the very normality of the family is abnormal. “It’s all they know, and they’ve been together so long it’s become a system. We’re trying not to over think it.” Vyas adds, “We don’t want to push it – we want to find out where those feelings come from.”

The naturalistic acting is backed by intense sessions of psychotopographical exploration. “It’s crucial to a play like this that we come at it cerebrally.” they all agree. The cast constructed complex biographies for each character, which Vyas describes as “a great toolkit to have, to understand what brought them to the point where they are.” The blocking is kept subtle: “too much blocking is unhelpful for a play like this.” The director finds it refreshing to work in such an intimate space. “Even a character just leaning toward another person, or a single gesture, can reveal so much about their bond. We encourage the pairs to move around a central point.” The tense power dynamic between Martha and Henry is reflected in the precise stagecraft, and directs focus to the characters.

Feerick, playing Henry’s sister Mia, inhabits a more isolated character, and stresses that what takes place onstage is only part of their lives. “We have to think about what has passed between scenes.” Angharad Phillips, playing Izzy, agrees: “Everything that happens is a result of what’s happened before, and the play’s really Ibsen-esque: people don’t say what they want to, and it creates trouble.”

That Face preview 2
as Hugh in rehearsals for ‘That Face’

As I observed in a single scene of their rehearsal, this focus on plot rather than overt discourse has paid off beautifully. The interaction on the bed between Henry and Martha is twisted and left me feeling the need to wash my hands, but it is also gentled with genuine affection and a ‘visceral love’, as Gaunt put it. Martha sits among her son’s shredded clothes and holds him to her, crooning ‘My beautiful boy.’ The final scene of the play is instantaneously and unanimously voted the most exhausting to perform and to watch. There has been endless tweaking to portray ‘the mother of all family arguments’, Phillips confessing that she cried even when she simply read the script for the scene. Alex Colville, playing Henry, strongly feels that the play “shows everything the way it is. It’s intense, but that’s how things are. The characters have emotional stakes, and the dialogue contains cues that help both us and the audience understand them.”

The play lends itself to black comedy, with the characters being “self aware enough to make a mockery out of a situation that might otherwise be heartbreaking”. When asked why the play is important, everyone is immediately ready with an answer. Alissa Cooper, co-producer, states: “The characters are extreme versions of your insecurities. Having all of that in the same place means something will touch you.  Everyone will identify with something.” “Modern playwrights throw issues at the page, where as the power of this play is about using characterization and stories to illustrate the broader ideas of how families are generally messed up,” says Vyas.

In the end, the ‘face’ in That Face is the mask of beatitude that most families wear. The play deconstructs that façade without being didactic about abuse, blasé in its dealings with mundane family life, or gratuitous in its use of violence. “You look behind that front… and they’re all shattered.” The glimpse I caught of the acting has me waiting with bated breath for the performance, which promises to be stupendous.

Watch this play. It will teach you something about yourself.

‘That Face’ will be performed from Thu 3 Nov until Sat 5 Nov at St. John’s Chapel, St. John’s College. Book your tickets here.

Photographs: Samuel Kirkman

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