Rough-Hewn Theatre Company lives up to its name in Devised Play One: FEAR: the play eschews smoothing over unattractive issues, confronting personal and collective fears in their purest, most terrifying forms. Whether the issue is child pornography or the slightly more flippant filicidal mother, it is the instinct, in the words of one of the characters, to “keep it in the margins” against which the company strives. In this minimalist production – created by writer Emma Levinkind and the cast – nothing is hidden from view, no matter how much we may not want to see it.
The play opens not unconventionally: a frustrated mother calling her reclusive teenage son downstairs, while he remains in a quasi-hypnotic state, transfixed by his computer. Cut to the mother visiting the family planning clinic, asking for an abortion. So far so normal. Things take a turn for the absurd, however, when we find out that the child she wishes to abort is 16 years old – “I could do with the space,” she says in a flash of black humour. It is typical of the play’s desire to shock, and to play on the audience’s desire to be shocked. We are disturbingly similar to the 16 year old internet-obsessed Cameron, who develops a penchant for child pornography because he has lost any sense of what it’s acceptable to like, knowing only that he “like[s] to be shocked.” The play toys with our expectations in making the familiar unfamiliar: the typing of office workers becomes a strange, repetitive hand-flapping, and smoking cigarettes a tense and mechanical movement performed in unison.
Fears are most fearful when they are immediate, in their purest rough-hewn state. The play seems to want to reduce everything to such a state. Cameron’s parents’ dinnertime chatter disintegrates into the bare bones of a conversation – “day,” “happy,” “pizza” – no longer conveying meaning, only anxiety. Office work is reduced to its essential elements: typing, gossiping, coffee-drinking, going to the toilet, and watching videos of pandas sneezing. A wonderful performance from Emma D’Arcy as Cameron’s introverted younger sister brings the girl’s very personal fear of public speaking to centre stage: stripped of any opportunity to hide herself, she is forced to speak her mind to the audience – a feat which D’Arcy portrays with a poignant diffidence that avoided affection. With a prop set consisting of a few chairs, the staging is stripped back enough to make sure these fears are confronted without mediation.
The distinctly modern mania that Devised Play One: FEAR addresses was a final, collective fear for the audience to confront – not so much a mania for life as for the half-lives we pursue in monotonous office jobs or on the internet. Watching this energetic madness unfold is a bizarre, disturbing, even humorous experience at times. For the brief 45 minutes that it lasted, it was exhilarating.