If you can’t Beats them, join them: Beats, Simpkins Lee (LMH)

Perhaps provoking more thought than emotion, Beats (written and directed by Emily Warren) revels in its own pretentiousness, but manages to pull enough of it off.

Oscar (Nick Fanthorpe) tries to help two sisters – Jean (Lauren Magee), a girl with schizoid personality disorder and Cecilia (Phoebe Hams), an artist– who are struggling to come to terms with themselves, their relationships with each other and that with their father. The action takes place in the hospital where Jean is a patient, with flashbacks to her second year of university (one year ago), leading up to her admission.

The acting is superb, creating precise and believable characters, each with their own ‘tics’. However, a play that strives to use ‘the process of artistic creation and construction as a metaphor for both how its characters present themselves to one another, and the paradoxically self-conscious realism with which the play presents itself’ sets its sights very high indeed. The promise that the play will ‘resemble a live film’ fades away after the ‘opening credits’.  Self-references and self-evaluation about and by the characters and the play itself become slightly too repetitive to be redeemed by their ironic self-consciousness; having every moment and line so weighted with artistic or psychological significance impedes the play’s momentum and leaves little room for engagement on the part of the audience. It comes to feel almost more like a lecture or debate than a play, despite the quality of the acting.

That being said, the Beats’ themes and indeed its ways of dealing with them are more than stimulating enough to make the lecture worthwhile. A combination of playwright Enda Walsh and author Haruki Murakami can be seen in the youthful turmoil of self-worth and validity, the question of the possibility of saviours, and the impatient attempts of an outer world to understand and to solve. The use of Oscar as representing the ‘pull your socks up’ approach works well to a certain extent, reflecting the barrier of incomprehension and frustration felt by both sides in the face of psychological disorder (though the opposition becomes a little too binary to remain intellectually satisfying). At the same time, the self-references of the play itself yield entertaining and thought-provoking results, such as the actors’ interactions with crew members setting up the stage, almost as though they were Scouts.

Beats tries to tackle too much at once. A play dealing with psychological problems encounters the expectation of emotional engagement and intellectual insight, reflecting the need that its very subject matter gives rise to. However, due to the play’s overly-wrought self-reflexivity, audience engagement is limited to the intellectual level. On the other hand, both content and form – and yes, even or perhaps especially the pretentiousness – of the play make this intellectual engagement so stimulating, that it is more than worth going, if only to see for yourself how it’s done. Go – even if you might hate it – go.

*** (THREE STARS)

Beats plays at the Simpkins-Lee theatre (Lady Margaret Hall) until Saturday.