By Eden Watkins
Like most works of LGBT+ theatre, especially of its era, Vincent River is preoccupied with loss, suffering and death. Set in a small flat in central London, the set is fairly minimal but with an effective attention to detail where it counts. There is a strange dissonance between the setting of the play and our setting as an audience, sitting at a ninety degree angle to the main stage on pues in a cold, 19th century chapel. At first this drew me out of the experience but, as the performances filled the space and the stories unfurled, it lent a curious intensity I found more than a little thought provoking.
Most of the script consists of stories told by the characters to each other and themselves, and the constant use of the historical present gives the scenes they describe an effective and sometimes distressing immersiveness. It’s in these stories within the story that the production really shines, detailed sets are created without a single prop and we get to know whole characters despite them having no actor. Vincent River himself features so strongly in the memories of our characters he gains a sort of agency and independence, there are times when Davey and Anita will enact interactions with him with such an intensity they seem possessed. Vincent becomes a ghost that, despite having no physical presence on stage, we can know, see and hear. When Alex Marshall and Victoria Bull use the full space available to them, in tandem with Vincent’s ghost, their performance touches real excellence.
There is not a single character mentioned or present in Vincent River that isn’t either a perpetrator of violence, an innocent victim or both. The central tragedy, while certainly the focus of the script, is accompanied by so many other smaller stories that relentlessly confront us with the suffering of shame. These stories are not told to us to be resolved later, they are simply laid at our feet, in gruesome detail, and left there for our consideration. Tragedy clearly has an important role to play in drama, often as the engine behind an overarching moral or theme, however the messages that Vincent River wants to communicate are fairly two dimensional. Once they have been acknowledged, the sheer emotional weight of the script has nothing to push forward and instead slams straight into you, serving no higher a purpose than impact. Some audience members may well have found this cathartic, but I must admit it just left me feeling shocked, sad, and unequipped to develop this effect into any kind of meaning.
Arguably, if I had left that cold uncomfortable chapel feeling like I had gained something, the production would have been a failure.
In short, while the production was objectively well executed I don’t feel like I gained much from it, but I can’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really supposed to. While the impact and style of the play may not be palatable to some, it would be disingenuous to claim that this effect is unintentional. In fact, the narrative motifs, immersive storytelling and even flecks of black humour we can find in the script show us that this effect is deliberate and careful. Many of the directorial decisions Anna Haines has taken, too, clearly show an effort to actively resist narrative resolution. After all, why should a play about something as horrible as a hate crime be resolved? Why should a story about a gay man being murdered for no real reason owe you closure or solace? Arguably, if I had left that cold uncomfortable chapel feeling like I had gained something, the production would have been a failure.
Vincent River, its images, performances and tone will stay with me for a long time. The production team and cast understood exactly what they were doing, and executed it with real talent and precision. They confront us with the story of something truly horrible and truly real, and are not interested in making that any easier than it should be.
There will be two further performances on the 17th and 18th of January at 19:30 in Hatfield chapel. One pound of every ticket sold will be donated to the LGBT Foundation.
Photograph: Pitch Productions