Enlightenment, Hampstead Theatre

Wednesday 6th October 2010

Enlightenment. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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When, earlier this year, Edward Hall took the reins at the Hampstead Theatre, some eyebrows were raised. I mean, look at his track record. It’s meant to be a new-writing theatre and Hall has had much more experience directing Shakespeare than in tackling new plays. On the other hand, this venue needed a clean sweep and Hall is certainly able to wield a new broom vigorously. His first show, Shelagh Stephenson’s thrilling play about the disappearance of a gap-year student, opened tonight — and it’s an excellent debut.

The first act is a textbook piece of exposition: Adam, a 20-year-old student, has gone traveling but has failed to return. His nice middle-class mother, Lia, is devastated and seeks solace from a psychic. His stepfather, Nick, is equally upset, but more level-headed. Lia’s father, Gordon, a former Labour MP, has a practical idea: he introduces his daughter to Joanna, a television producer who wants to make a series about missing people. Then an unexpected event happens, and a young man called Adam appears.

As the scenes flash by, the play’s themes deepen. Lia is not only thrown completely off-balance by the disappearance of her son, but her whole view of life is turned upside down. Her Enlightenment values of tolerance and goodness are called into question, and what finally enlightens her are her own terrible experiences. In the process, she — a do-gooding liberal — is forced to criticise the West’s view of the world, its materialism and its apparent immunity to terror. Lia responds not by relying on a stiff upper lip, but by excavating her deepest emotions.

Stephenson, whose 1996 black comedy The Memory of Water (also originally staged at the Hampstead) is a contemporary classic, revisits not only the venue that promoted her work in the past, but also her habitual theme of death. With an acerbic mix of emotional pain, sharp one-liners and metaphysical speculation, the play moves steadily but relentlessly towards an abyss, a place where Lia can eventually peer over the edge and see, like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, “The horror! The horror!” In the figure of Adam the play discovers an avenging angel who tears away the mask of middle-class liberal sensibility.

At the heart of Enlightenment is the ambiguous embrace of the family. On the one hand, and conveyed here with humour and liveliness, there is a real tug towards family life, a deep need to create and recreate an intimate sense of self in close relationships. On the other hand, the play also shows the centripetal forces that tear apart your kith and kin. There’s a twisted emotional knot in the very guts of this satirical and intensely likeable work.

Edward Hall’s dynamic and intelligent production is visually arresting: a huge white circular room, beautifully designed by Francis O’Connor, full of the colourful everyday junk of living is gradually emptied as Lia attempts to spring clean her existence. Each scene change is punctuated by a flashbulb exploding, and projections on the back wall and ceiling open out the story. As Lia, Julie Graham portrays a constant tension between the desire to do the right thing and guilt at her privileged social position. Often on the verge of tears, what saves her is her sheer intelligence. Richard Clothier’s Nick is more down to earth and easily riled, and he can’t stand Polly Kemp’s eccentric and dotty psychic. Paul Freeman’s imposing Gordon and Daisy Beaumont’s manipulative and brash Joanna make a good contrast; last but not least, Tom Weston-Jones’s Adam provides the play with a character who is both needy and dangerous, a youth in search of his identity.

Stephenson’s play is very entertaining and its final vision of a world that is cracked open to receive primal energies and fierce hatreds is stunningly relevant and contemporary. Although there is a slight feeling of predictability and occasional faint echoes of other plays, this is a sensational story well told. Most importantly, Hall has proved that he can select and direct exciting drama — it’s an auspicious start to his leadership of this venue.

This review first appeared on The Arts Desk 

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