It isn’t all about pace, lots of other things matter, but pace matters a lot. Currently, Janet McTeer is acting her socks off in Phaedra at the National Theatre, and Janet McTeer acting her socks off is a sight to behold. But the director (Simon Stone) seems to believe that the script (by Simon Stone) is best served by stopping for a while, dropping in the front tabs, and projecting large chunks of the text onto the wiggly curtains, while teams of NT stage hands lever off one big Perspex box and lever on a different one. It takes forever, it is really boring, and Janet McTeer has to come back on and pick up the mood again from a damp spot on the carpet. By contrast, in an underground playing space not a mile away, Talia Pick and Emma Lucia quarter their little thrust stage, finish each other’s lines, talk to the audience, and never stop for breath, everything flows, it develops, little incidents assume enormous significance. It works.
Four years ago, How We Begin had a criminally short run at the King’s Head Theatre. Its journey towards a more generous run was interrupted by various international health crises, but it has returned, with the same cast and the same director (Elizabeth Benbow), and it is a small wonder. Writer Elisabeth Lewerenz tells the story of two women, Helen and Diana, who became best friends at university, have been besties ever since, and discover, somewhat to their own surprise, that they don’t just like each other, they love each other. The course of finding out, exploring the idea, navigating fear of rejection, fear of damaging the friendship, fear of hurting other people, is charted with enormous delicacy. The actors move around each other, never settling, never committing, until finally they do and it’s as big a relief for the audience as it is for the characters. Simple, simple stage-craft that frames the script superbly, that heightens the emotional investment of the actors and the audience, and that tells their story perfectly.
The entire production budget for How We Begin wouldn’t pay for one of Janet McTeer’s designer costumes, but the contrast goes deeper than that. False steps, longueurs, bad voice-overs, kill whatever emotional investment I might make in Phaedra’s story. I am involved in Helen and Diana’s love affair because the production is deft and delicate and true. It draws me in, it shows me the bones of the situation, it involves me in the development of their affair, their joy, their passion, and their distress when it ends. Their distress has me in bits, because the truth of the playing lets me share it and understand it. The NT has all the bells and whistles a body could desire, How We Begin at the Vault Festival has nothing much, except excellent, affecting, brilliant theatre. It’s on till Sunday 19th February. Go.
4.5 stars because nothing is perfect, but this very nearly is.