By Michael Brindley
Burn This, a psychodrama by esteemed American playwright Lanford Wilson is given a powerful and engrossing production here by a focussed cast, completely inside their characters and given nuanced and detailed direction by Ian Sinclair.
Anna (Jessica Clarke) a dancer turned choreographer, and flatmate ad man Larry (Dushan Philips) mourn the death of their friend Robbie. He was also a gifted dancer and a close collaborator of Anna’s; she has lost her friend and her artistic impetus. At the funeral, Anna learns that the family had never seen Robbie dance and are in total denial that he was gay; they cast her as the ‘girlfriend’ she never was. She is heartbroken, almost paralysed with grief – and her ostensible boyfriend Burton (Jacob Collins Levy), a screenwriter who despises his own work, is sympathetic but in a distant, even half-hearted way. Into this sad, grey stasis comes the explosive disruption of Pale (Mark Diaco), or ‘Jimmy’, Robbie’s elder brother – foul-mouthed, drunk, high, violent – a torrent of abuse and sexual innuendo – and, in Mr Diaco’s performance, sexual energy. This is a powerhouse performance from Mark Diaco, a force of twisted ‘masculinity’, but a performance that gradually and subtly reveals depths of hopeless vulnerability, guilt and regret.
Anna resists him, rejects him, rages at him – but it is not his violence that wears her down. Gay flatmate Larry watches on, not joining the battle until it counts. In another seemingly effortless, graceful performance from Mr Philips, Larry is the insightful and indeed caring and protective observer and ‘helper’ – despite the stream of bitchy – and funny – commentary on anything and everything. Larry is, if you like, the Chorus to the evolving drama. When he becomes, force majeure, Burton’s confidant, we believe that too.
As for Anna, Jessica Clarke mines all the character’s contradictions in the ebb and flow of her rage, her misery and her sympathy. Her performance is a fine combination of insight and technique. We never see her dance, but willowy Ms Clarke, with a dancer’s walk, makes us wish we could. She makes Anna’s artistic frustration and her misery palpable and the audience cannot help but be deeply affected by it.
But if that were all there was to it, it would be a situation, not a story. The text, however, and the performances build an escalating tension that has us constantly asking, what will happen next? The resolution is, for me, far from contradictory; Lanford Wilson has laid down clear trajectories for his characters and they are beautifully realised here.
Mis en scène is greatly aided by director Ian Sinclair‘s and designers Jacob Battista’s and Sofie Battista’s risky decision to make their set - Anna’s and Larry’s Lower Manhattan loft apartment - virtually the whole of the fortyfivedownstairs bare boards space, including actual doors, cupboards and columns. The increased distances between characters, the distances they must walk to leave or to arrive, underscores the emotions and ups the tension. The slight disadvantage, perhaps, is an acoustic problem in this very wide, high ceiling space. Meanwhile, Clare Springett’s lighting is inspired, ranging from unnoticeable naturalism – morning through the windows, and so on - to her defying naturalism with expressionist reflections of the characters’ emotional states, isolating them in pools of light or subtly changing the colour register.
The dynamic between the characters of Anna and Pale here is strangely (or not so strangely) of its time. Pale is strongly reminiscent of Danny in John Patrick Shanley’s 1983 Danny & the Deep Blue Sea – a guy with anger management problems who, lucky for him, meets a woman who sees through that. Or there is, indeed, Ronnie Cammareri in Shanley’s 1987 Moonstruck – surly, defensive, resentful of his brother, and, at heart, deeply romantic. That’s not to say anyone copied and even ‘influenced’ anyone else, but these 1980s portraits of masculinity suggest a character armour of violence protecting something deeply wounded and sad. It’s in the zeitgeist – that era of dog eat dog and greed is good.
Nor is this to say that Burn This is so of its time that it is dated; it is not dated at all: would that we have moved on from such men as Pale, but clearly, we have not. Here, there is also the eternal triangle, that recurrent theme in Thomas Hardy’s novels: for the woman, Anna, there is Mr Right-but-Wrong (Burton), and Mr Wrong-but-Right (Pale). In other words, this fierce, highly emotive and highly specific drama that all takes place in a loft between these particular individuals is as gripping and enthralling and sad as ever. What we witness is the inexorable force of desire – no, perhaps ‘need’ is the better term here – that draws people together against the odds, against their better judgement and against even a hope for the future.