An Incredible Voyeurage: Bluebeard at the BT

Art & Lit Stage
BluebeardArtWorkWhilst the French fairy-tale of Bluebeard tells the violent tale of a man who murders his wives, the play of Bluebeard by Howard Coase and Douglas Grant covers a rather different matter – that of an aged mother, Claire (Becky Banatvala) losing her sense of reality with Alzheimer’s over a series of visits from her two children, David (Michael Roderick) and Emily (Carla Kingham).The play is staged at the Burton Taylor, but contrary to the usual tiered seating looking down onto a cramped space, the audience surrounds an open plan stage looking in on the dozing Claire in her typical nursing apartment, just prior to her first visit.The entire one-act play is set in this apartment, and yet it also provides the setting of Claire’s visions and memories which merge into the reality of the scene and seamlessly demonstrate the blurring of Claire’s poor grasp of present and past. In this very apartment, we are treated to a picnic, holidays in Paris, and the aftermath of a domestic incident. Claire’s associated memory ties in with the real content of the conversation between her two children, but the reality is that she is sat there totally bemused and in another world.

For new writing, this play is very impressive in both script and directorship. It is fast-paced and engaging, with clear but subtle changes in lighting to indicate the switch between a scene from Claire’s memory and a scene from her apartment. The physicality of the three actors also changes accordingly, with Claire’s younger self interacting with two dynamic companions in a variety of settings far removed from her apartment with her two angsty grown-up children.

The children in question are portrayed expertly by Roderick and Kingham, particularly as they find themselves with diverse sub-characters to represent within Claire’s memories, adopting stereotypical Frenchmen or excitable twenty-somethings, whilst still keeping character impeccably when the script called for them to return to their real selves. Kingham played a cold, aloof and antagonistic Emily, a familiar type of young, ambitious newlywed, focused on practical matters. Roderick’s David started quiet, though bumbling with good humour, but grew into a powerfully emotive character by the play’s climax. All the while, Banatvala portrayed the subtle yet convincing Claire, in strict character even during scenes of silence, combining her gaze of senile bemusement with tacit resignation as the children discussed her within earshot, and switching smoothly into the younger, adventurous Claire. Maintaining such an inflicted character is a difficult task, especially one on the pivot between being the main character and (almost) a vegetative prop. Banatvala takes to all aspects of this role with the skill and grace of a professional.

As a play about Alzheimer’s and cross-generational family relationships, the play naturally touches on some sensitive topics. References to moving the mother to Zurich as euphemisms for euthanasia would appear a heavy-handed topic in the context of a more lighthearted play, but Bluebeard succeeded in striking the right sort of balance between the relevant allusion without becoming too “melodramatic” (as the characters themselves note).

Criticisms are comparatively few. The occasional first night line fluff is only natural, and a key plot point explained by Kingham on the reasons for their father’s leaving was a bit rushed and thus unclear. The script is clever and humorous, with only the title and final scene leaving the audience confused. Very few references to the Bluebeard tale are made, except for the final scene, whose association to the rest of the play seems out of place. Those seeing the play expecting an adaptation of the gory fairytale will be disappointed. Nevertheless, those looking for a simple, charming and engaging play with solid acting and a good-humoured take on a pertinent issue will be most satisfied.

**** (4 Stars)
IMAGE/Celia Stevenson