This is a play of polarity. Reality jostles with fiction as the audience navigates the set, which is formed of “rooms” delimited by cardboard boxes. In the centre there is pile of these boxes, interspersed with television screens that light up in between scenes, giving the audience a context beyond the lives we are prying into. The dialogue itself is scattered with polar oppositions, and the banal sits next to the profound; the lines which will turn out to be crucial to the plot and the play are lost in everyday speech. This banality undercuts the unravelling of the lives of the characters: when workman Ray is told that his boss has inexplicably taken all the doors off the hinges in his house in a moving and pitiful manifestation of post-traumatic stress, Ray asks “Whadya use?” and is satisfied by the response that Jim used the screwdriver lying nearby. The audience however, astonished and bemused by this and injected with dramatic irony, could never be satisfied. Another polarity: the play forces the past and the future to oppose one another, an opposition which works in such a way that any attempt to understand the chronology will ultimately fail.
Characters, both alive and dead, appear around the audience. We are reminded that these are actors, people, just like us. When there is nothing that separates audience and stage physically, the invisible fourth wall which can never be crossed becomes, paradoxically, even more apparent. There is something which prevents us from being allowed to join in fully. We are reminded that they are indeed breathing corpses. The characters are simultaneously alive: in human bodies, and dead: they will never exist. Which brings us to the final polarity which the play brings before us. Life and death: we are shown first one, then the other, then both. Is death the final stage of life, or is life just waiting for death? The characters are trapped in the cycle of death breeding death which rules their lives.
Dominic Applewhite’s strong artistic vision is cohesive and all-encompassing; his decisions for the production conflate with the original play in balanced harmony. Credit must be given to the production team, lead by producer Rebecca MacDuff, designer Abby Clarke and lighting designer Clara Halse who have created a very real and consistent production: an impressive achievement given the nature of the promenade style. The accuracy of each set item and of their overall effect is crucial to the experience of the audience. We must feel we are intruding, and indeed we do: at one point I was actually watching a scene through the window of the hotel room in which it took place. The original soundtrack by Harry Davidson enhances the production considerably, in a neat and appropriately unnoticeable way. The whole experience is new and exciting, and would not be possible without the hard work and skills of the production team to make it so.
Of course, none of it would be real without the talented group of actors who use the space. Again, they are tasked to sustain the experience of the audience; if the characters were not complete or the actors’ realities showing through, the whole illusion would come tumbling down. Luckily, they were captivating and fully engaged in their work. Isobel Jesper Jones and James Watson as Elaine and Jim showed particular dexterity, notably in their transition between times. We saw them in the moments of an imminent implosion in their lives and then a few months later, and the subtlety with which they traced the changes in their characters was very impressive. We saw the same people, but aged, anxious, tired. Jesper Jones’ Elaine had lost her humour but we saw the shadow of it. Her posture had minutely changed; she was stiffer, more self-conscious. Calam Lynch’s performance as Ray in their scenes, although a smaller part of the plot, must not be overlooked. His awkward politeness and comic timing throughout were accurate and well-executed. Cassian Bilton as Charlie was unnervingly creepy, from his very first lines, not in a clichéd but in fact rather sinister way. His interaction with Grainne O’Mahoney’s naïve and fragile Amy was uncomfortable and scary. This, combined with the voyeuristic setting of the play, made for much skin-crawling and tension for audience members. Their final scene offers more explanation than I had expected, but also teases the audience with promises of something more than the play will provide. In fact, the play is ultimately innocent, unlike us: our imaginations are led to do the dirty work that the play incites. The exception being Applewhite’s scene with Helena Wilson, which is uncomfortably violent in a much more overt and disturbing way. The performances from these two actors were nuanced and deft. Applewhite’s frustration and Jackson’s antagonism collided with catastrophic inevitability, which was difficult to watch.
We are told both everything and nothing. We are given all the clues which, when followed, lead us nowhere: I left the Keble O’Reilly with a satisfying sense of dissatisfaction.
Verdict: Breathing Corpses is a unique experience for an audience member and the whole team must be applauded for their collaboration on this dark, multi-faceted, exciting production.
Image// Hester Styles Vickery