Review: LOVE at The National Theatre (2016)

A Review on LOVE, The Dorfman, National Theatre

Writer and director: Alexander Zeldin

Performed at: The Dorfman, National Theatre

Review rating: ****

Date of performance: 6/12/16

Review by Megan Fellows

Love is Alexander Zeldin’s hypernaturalistic play gracing The National’s Dorfman Theatre with its topical and poignant presence. Set in the communal kitchen of a temporary accommodation shelter, we meet several families stuck in the limbo between homelessness and council housing. Each character is on the poverty line. They all have their own stories and situations and see the temporary accommodation as just that, temporary.

As the play progresses we witness tense conversations between loved ones after unsuccessful council meetings, and we are made aware that the Welfare State is stretched to its limit. Even Colin (played by Nick Holder) and his elderly and ailing mother Barbara (Anna Calder-Marshall) are classed as non-priority and have been stuck at the shelter for over a year. This news comes as a shock to new resident Emma (Janet Etuk) who gives a noteworthy performance as a heavily pregnant woman juggling hormones, step-children and a college course.

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Emma is a proud woman with standards of cleanliness that not all the residents share. After a distressing scene in which Barbara is unable to make it to the toilet in time, Colin thinks it appropriate to use Emma’s dressing gown to clothe his incontinent mother. This proves the last straw for the mother-to-be who strikes Colin across the face. This out of character moment proved a tense watch for audience members, as they waited with baited breath to see Colin’s next move. Instead of retaliating the burly bald-headed man was reduced to a childlike whimper, a stark contrast to his paternal role as carer for his mother. Whilst this moment proved a dramatic climax in the piece I feel that it served as one of the only moments of plot enhancing drama throughout the entire play. At times the piece lacked pace and dramatic action, which I suppose one could argue was a purposeful point on Zeldin’s part. The play’s hypernaturalistic, almost fly-on-the-wall documentary style made it feel like we were not watching a theatre piece, but voyeuristically watching a neighbour go about their daily routine through the kitchen window. This idea was further reinforced by the boundaries between the stage and audience being blurred: the Dorfman’s flat studio stage meant there was no physical barrier between the front row of seats and the action.

Moreover the house lights were left up at all times, meaning the audience was not only watching the characters but their fellow theatre goers too. This proved an interesting touch, with the character’s themselves often wandering into the audience’s space. One moment to note was when Barbara ventured into the seating, often reaching out to the audience to help her climb the steps. It was fascinating to watch audience members automatically reach out their arms to help her get by, and Barbara’s ascent into the audience, and finally the exit, felt like a metaphorical ascent into an afterlife as we never saw her character again until the curtain call.

A character that proved interesting was Sudanese refugee Tharwa, played by Hind Swareldahab. Tharwa spoke very little English and was often seen on stage attempting to make a phone call back home to her daughter. Although Tharwa spoke in Arabic throughout most of the play, Zeldin’s clever writing and direction clearly communicated her intentions. For example in one particularly scene Tharwa and Adnan realise they share the common language of Arabic. Tharwa soon fills him in with the gossip on each of their fellow residents, with hand gestures and facial expressions communicating exactly what she felt about each and every one of them. A humorous and human touch. It is the humanity within Love that truly sees Zeldin’s play flourish: you do not merely sympathise with the characters but empathise with them. Being thrown into the thick of the action; offering an arm to an ailing woman; being keenly aware that fellow theatre goers are wiping away tears – one cannot argue that Zeldin’s play provokes reaction, provokes empathy. Whilst this might be a pseudo-empathy, with many theatre goers never having experienced what the characters themselves have gone through, the tangibility between the characters, the action and the emotions somehow makes the feeling of empathy more powerful.

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There were many interesting and often symbolic moments throughout the piece, some of which were more clearly realised than others. Adnan a Syrian refugee (played by Ammar Haj Ahmad) proved an enigmatic character who only featured in the piece in a handful of short exchanges. At one point he entered the communal space watching a video of Swan Lake on his phone, and then in another he pirouetted humorously to the irritating music that played whilst another character was on hold on the phone the council. These small moments were wonderful, but they left me wondering and wanting to know more about the reasoning behind them. Were they simply character quirks or did Adnan have dreams of becoming a ballerina as a boy? I would have liked more of an insight into the enigmatic Adnan’s backstory, but perhaps having certain characters only feature in glimpses was playwright Zeldin’s critique on a society in which people come and go, in which we don’t even know the names or stories of our very own neighbours.

Zeldin’s play was a really fascinating watch. I found myself engulfed in the lives of the characters and wanting to know more. So much so that when the lights black-out on Tharwa’s closing phone conversation with her daughter, I felt confused and almost cheated. My main critique of the play was the manner in which it ended. It did not feel whole or complete. However, saying that again I return back to perhaps that was Zeldin’s point. The lives of the characters, of the real people facing homelessness, do not all have clear beginning, middles or ends. Whilst some might be lucky and secure a home for Christmas, there are 50,000 others who won’t. Their lives are uncertain, their future’s unclear. Perhaps Zeldin’s play was not only an exploration of families living on the breadline, of strangers forced together by circumstance, but of the Welfare State as a whole.

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