The Mercy Seat – Who are we when the world falls apart? (Theatre Review)

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The Mercy Seat

Gentle Banana People in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company

Neil LaButes The Mercy Seat opens with a man sitting alone on a couch holding a ringing mobile phone. The apartment setting is shrouded in dust. Soon a woman enters, she takes the ringing phone from his hands and places it on the table. She is covered in dust. The implication is that he has been sitting for some time holding his phone and she has been watching him for some time. The time frame, like the disaster that is occurring around them, is never properly specified, though a contemporary audience would assume it was September eleven. References are made to flyers being distributed, chaos in the streets, the Brooklyn bridge and Neil LaBute centers the play in “New York City, not long ago.” Abby and Ben make reference to the outside in more ambiguous terms such as “apocalyptic shit”, “there’s a shitload of people out there right now who would just like to be “okay”” and “those buildings are just,like gone”. This idea of two people who are alive after a disaster that changes the world references Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, which is another play that uses a disaster “out there” to examine the anxiety of the human individual confronted with their absolute condition. In Endgame, the referencing is equally as specific and yet ambiguous, no dates, no times, just an anxious pointing “out there” by the protagonists. It is assumed Beckett is talking about the world post WWII, events that were said to never touch at the heart of Americans. Well, says Neil LaBute, the Americans have been touched now and the result is a collapse of the carefree idealistic confident approach to life that American’s have lost forever.

As Abby and Ben sit, they are waiting and avoiding taking action. They must act soon, but what action do they take? Ben’s affair with Abby saved him from the disaster outside. Their affair has become a loathsome act he is ashamed of, as its existence includes the betrayal of his wife and children, and now his ugly survival. He sits, staring at his ringing phone. The disaster outside changes everything inside. The couple talk, argue and try to nut out what is happening, but something has been lost forever, and every action has been redefined by the disaster. As their awareness of the changed world creeps in on them, they turn on each other, destroying everything they hold dear.If Ben can’t face the desolation of his ruined marriage, he equally can’t face the slow decline of his relationship with Abby. They attempt control of their life by refusing comfort to others, helping themselves first. It is a survival tactic, but it is short-lived. The disaster outside their door lays itself over the top of the disaster of their relationship. Abby earns more than Ben and is his boss. When Ben asks her to run away with him, they will both live as outcasts and Abby will no longer be his “boss at work.” The disaster gives him opportunity to “fix” the running sores of his life, and yet the disaster outside has revealed his flaws for what they are, and he is effectively powerless to act. When Abby cries at Ben that she is not “Harriet Tubman” she refuses the role of the courageous revolutionary, instead preferring the life they want to build together. However, like so many characters in theatre of the absurd, neither Ben nor Abby can act. As Adorno would say “… our mental faculty is paralysed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience.”

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A play as complex as The Mercy Seat requires great performances, and this years production by Gentle Banana People brings Patrick Magee and Rebecca Martin to play the complex roles of Ben and Abby, two actors worthy of the difficult characters they have to represent. Patrick Magee takes advantage of Ben’s understated staging to present him as on the brink of permanent shock. His initial response to the disaster that saved him is one of elation, and yet the gradual dawning of his ineffectual self is its own tragedy that Magee slow brings to his surface, culminating in a tantrum exposing him as the child he truly is. Magee’s internalising is posited with Rebecca Martin’s Abby, a woman who sits too close to hysteria for her own comfort. As Ben processes, Abby reveals, almost as if she is a canvass for the emotions of everything and everyone around her. Her salvation lies in her ability to interpret – interpret her lover, the spirit and mind of the survivors, the needs of the woman at the door who asks for milk. Even if she is not Harriet Tubman, she concerns herself with the business of others to avoid herself. She is as stuck as Ben, abandoning her autonomy as she waits for his decision. Rebecca Martin’s Abby is large, as if her character needs to fill all the holes created by recent events. Abby knows long before Ben than her relationship is in decline, and she walks him through it, hoping against hope all the way that she is wrong. It’s a stunning performance by both actors, giving the impression of a volcano trying to have a conversation with a large swamp of quicksand.

Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, The Mercy Seat’s production has closed. Take the opportunity to see it when it comes to life again, as it inevitably will. It is one of the standouts of the 2014 calendar so far.

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