An Ordinary Person – Robert Allan and the pervasive stigma of the victim. (Theatre Review)
“He’s not bad. He’s just an ordinary person.”
In post-political correctness days, becoming a victim and being a victim are, surprisingly, at opposite ends of the pop psychological rainbow. Victimhood has a timeline that is defined (as Lacan would say) by the “big Other” – that is we don’t know how long you are allowed to be a victim (it varies by location, the nature of the negative experience, gender and race), but we all damn well know when the time has run out. A person who “is” a victim may have had the most vicious of crimes perpetuated against them, but there is an attitudinal line that a sufferer approaches, and you are not allowed to balk from it when it appears ready to be crossed. When it is time to stop being a victim, it is absolutely time to stop being a victim.
Victims receive the sort of care a child craves from a mother – that is, their deepest needs are absolutely met while they suffer. People who become victims don’t want this treatment to stop, as the sympathy and attention they receive is crucial to the pathology of the addicted sufferer. Being a victim (not becoming one) is attitudinal and learned behaviour, not genetic or biological in any way. What is the most interesting about victimhood, however, is its relationship with the empathic person. There is no point crying that you are a victim of something that everyone has decided in society is your lot – for example, a black American in the Southern States in the 1940’s trying to eat food in the white section of a diner. In the end, what is strangest about victimhood, is that its status is almost entirely determined by the passive observer.
And yet, victimhood is more dangerous to the addicted victim than it is to the passive observer, despite the intensity of their revulsion. It is this strange relationship between “the victim”, “the perpetrator”, and those interacting with both, that Robert Allan explores in the fascinating play An Ordinary Person. Louise is a thirty-five year old victim of her birth who is on her way to confront her estranged parents, Aggie and Topher. She wants to talk to them about the legacy their actions have bestowed upon her, the shame and mental anguish that she has suffered for her entire life. Meanwhile, twenty-five year old Nathan is on rocky ground with his girlfriend Fiona and wants to drop the dope and get into serious action to try to keep the relationship alive. Fiona doesn’t want a victim for a boyfriend, so he’d better act and show that he’s not burdened by his past. It is Aggie and Topher who will be the centre for the events that will dramatically change the lives of everyone, but in the end it is the choice to live life that will be the difference between life and death.
An Ordinary Person is a complex tale, examining those who shelter themselves under the banner “victim”, those who fall for their story, those who refuse to acknowledge the victim in another and those who refuse to acknowledge they may have been hurt so they can move on with their lives. The five protagonists weave in and out of each other’s space, five emblems of psychological enquiry, five points of view, five emotional chess pieces building up for accidental war. It is the spectre of the victim that unite them, the fear of its label, the embracing of its lifestyle, and the way this spectre can control all their lives even if they don’t choose it. In a perverse twist of horribly recognisable reality, the tools that can help someone escape the control of victim status, are used to perpetuate it and nurture it, revealing the subconscious is a cruel and intelligent mistress. Robert Allan paints a picture that takes the plays length to unfold as the depth of each protagonist and the journey of the reflective bubbles popping at their surface come to a stark and startling conclusion. When we come face to face with tragedy, we often ask why, and yet Allan wants us to pause, reflect and examine the possibility that a different choice made from a conscious stand might have offered a different reality.
When a play wants to embrace ideas this deep and dark, one would expect a night of despair in the theatre, but Allan knows we feel it deep when we laugh, and so he carves his narrative from witty observations, funny lines and an always respectful attention to all the points of view he represents. Director Julie Baz takes his words, adds an excellent cast, and brings the characters of Topher, Aggie, Louise, Nathan and Fiona alive on the stage using music to move the audience back and forth through time. When characters are confessing to secrets they prefer to hide, the audience feels like a silent witness, or a confident and David Jeffrey’s set, particularly with its large gate through which characters enter and leave, constantly make us feel that we are on the inside of each troubled soul, each person trapped in the quicksand of their stasis.
The cast is excellent, all bringing to life their piece of the emotional puzzle Allan builds. Mel Dodge is particularly strong as the rather unlikable Louise, who Dodge manages to make the audience warm to regardless of her committment to her own suffering. Jai Higgs has all his youthful exuberance repressed and sitting under the surface as his Nathan tries to break out into a life rather than explode into a tragedy. Carla Nirella is his partner Fiona, a young girl who admires action, not pain, and who barely knows what she has gotten herself into. David Jeffrey and Alexander Butt bring Topher old and young respectively to painful life, the man reaches only to have what he so badly wants elude him over and over again, and finally Cherilyn Price is a warm and powerful Aggie, a woman who seemes to be apologising unconsciously her whole life – even to a bird that visits her every day.
An Ordinary Person is a deep and arresting piece of theatre you will discuss long into the night and be thinking about for many days.
All Photographs by Katy Green Loughrey