Relatively Speaking – Speaking with each other, relatively. (Theatre review)
The Ensemble Theatre, 18 November to 14 January
With its shades of Wilde’s Importance of being Earnest, Alan Ayckbourn manages to avoid the social timing of his 1965 play taking precedence over the verbal acrobatics, which marks his play as different from its inspiration. There is no doubt Relatively Speaking is set in the 1960’s (and this production directed by Mark Kilmurry keeps it firmly planted in that era) however, its emotional undercurrents feel oddly contemporary. If Wilde used the layers or word play to criticise and mock society, Ayckbourn uses it to reveal himself – or rather a version of himself – that is timeless. Characterisation in Relatively Speaking is fully formed. We see ourselves in each of the four protagonists and have enormous sympathy for their ridiculous plights. Via these intense connections, Ayckbourn can make bold statements regarding men and woman and the way women use society to manoeuvre their men in and out of crises of their own making. This relational complexity Wilde touched on, but refused in favour of comedy and a rather viscous judgement that causes distance for the audience from the heart of his characters. But Ayckbourn does more than endow his characters with witty words. He plants himself (and therefore the audience) inside each and very clearly loves them all.
Much has been made over the years of Ayckbourn’s autobiographical touch on his work. Of note is the audiences interest in the events of Ayckbourn’s life and their influence, rather than the writer imagining himself within character. Biographer Paul Allen has refused the idea that the events of Ayckbourn life influence his writing, but the more interesting question is, what is it about Ayckbourn’s plays, and Relatively Speaking in this case, that provokes such questions? Are we seeking relief from Ayckbourn’s intimacy and hoping to take refuge in some sort of ‘truth’ imposing itself, or do we need the play to be ‘true’ to justify our feelings? As a female audience member, I took great satisfaction the way Tracy Mann and Emma Palmer represented women in Ayckbourn’s play. My experience was empathy and reflection. Tracy Mann’s Shelia, with her depths, rapid wit and emotional control engendered within me a longing for her perspective to be ‘real.’ This is both the joy and the deception of theatre. This leads to Nietzsche’s criticism of Wagner that after realising the connection between contemporary theatre, theatrical success and the character of contemporary man, his soul no longer had anything to do with the theatre. We are forced to confront Nietzsche’s complaint that “All the modern arts have until now been gradually debased, either as narrow and atrophied or as luxury items. Even the uncertain disconnected memories we moderns have inherited from the Greeks of true art may come to rest.” (Untimely Meditations Ch four)
Seen in this light then, we are not Ginny, Greg, Philip and Sheila, but they are us, reflecting a comfort that Alan Ayckbourn and Mark Kilmurry are seeking to engender. In this, Mark Kilmurry is an exemplary interpreter of Relatively Speaking, a director who understands the plays appeal to the universal but equally senses Ayckbourn’s depth of perception when it comes to our desire to see ourselves favourably reflected in the theatre. Males in the audience may not (or may) want to be David Whitney’s Phillip, but they certainly approve of his coming out of his moral dilemma virtually unscathed. And this brings us back to the title of the play; everything is relative, everything is speaking. Our desire to see ourselves in this play, or to endow the characters with the status of ‘the real’ reflects our desire to control the narrative of our lives.
Mark Kilmurry is well supported by his strong cast, all of whom are wonderfully entertaining to watch. Relatively Speaking at the Ensemble is that rare creature in theatre these days, long and largely meandering, but breathlessly entertaining and funny. The lines are delivered succinctly with impeccable comic timing, layering over each other to result in a richness that develops with the plays plotting. A very clever scene change mid-way becomes part of the performance, endearing us to set designer Hugh O’Connor and bring his work to the fore. Most of the 1960’s recognition falls to costume designer Margaret Gill to carry, but she does this with wit and flair, giving the play’s aesthetic continuity and assurance.
Relatively Speaking at the Ensemble is a heart-warming experience that gives us a fun and happy night at the theatre without the usual expensive loss of depth and insight. Kilmurry’s commitment to the text and his casts adept exposition allow us to delve beneath the surface joys and engage with something deliciously suspicious and reflective. Perhaps, as deliciously suspicious as our desire to attend theatre inevitably is, in itself.