I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect upon arriving at one of the final rehearsals of Attempts on her Life before the run starts at the BT on Wednesday. The tantalising trailer and posters have given nothing away of the complexity of this performance of Martin Crimp’s play, which is often branded “in-yer-face” theatre. What I found was a highly driven, talented cast working towards what has the potential to be one of the best shows in Oxford this term.
Director Archie Thompson talked me through the creative process involved in transforming Crimp’s script into a piece of working drama. Faced with seventeen scenes, an unspecified setting and an unknown number of characters, Thompson, in collaboration with the cast, have prized apart the dialogue and given it setting and context. Six characters find themselves in a dystopian big brother-esque competition where a bodiless voice barks numbers and scene titles over the sound system. Going on this and a single prop per scene the characters are left to improvise, fighting against each other for the most compelling performance to avoid ejection from the competition. Quite what this would mean for the characters was not specified, but the energy and at times desperation the actors put into their character hinted darkly at terrifying consequences.
The scenes vary wildly in scale and tone from a series of poignant monologues delivered to an answerphone machine to a macabre dance routine to a ghastly parody of a charity advertising campaign. The latter was a particularly interesting example of the way this play leaves the audience guessing: Cassian Bilton and Mary Higgins verbally torture the suffering Maddy Walker, yet the full impact and meaning of the dialogue does not come until seconds before the end, leaving me shocked when it did. Watching this, you cannot help but draw parallels with modern mass media culture and the dehumanising, destructive effect that it is having on our real-life relationships. The similarities with reality TV shows are clear, which ought to force the audience to realise the warped view of the world fed to us via television and the internet where suffering and pain is presented as entertainment. Indeed, if audiences do not leave Attempts guilty and aware of their own complicity in this, through going to a play that advertises itself as being about “pornography, ethnic violence, terrorism and unprotected sex”, what, the play seems to ask, can be the future for morality and humanity?
Such a play where the actors are always visible to the audience requires constant commitment and visible responses from the characters, which I felt was conveyed effectively. Even from the few scenes I saw, I got the impression of a bullying camaraderie between Calam Lynch and Mary Higgins’ characters (none of the characters are ascribed names) and victimisation of Imo Reeve-Tucker, creating interesting undertones that flow through the separate tableaux and add an extra dimension of meaning.
The nature of the quickly changing scenes demands huge dexterity of the characters to adapt to different moods. This was especially well played upon by Maddy Walker who began a scene brushing away her tears from the previous one yet already in a new character. I was also fascinated by the layering of characters possible with such a format, as the audience have to follow the new characters set up in each scene whilst trying to unpick the six characters underneath them that are revealed steadily as the tension of the situation corrodes their ability to maintain a veneer of self-control.
The only thing I didn’t quite understand from the scenes I saw were the references to Annie, who appears to be somehow integral to the play without ever being present. Her name is repeatedly called without any clarification of how the characters all seem to have conflicting ideas of who she is, if they even know her at all. However, Thompson suggests this is the essential enigma of the play that is designed to let the audience reach their own conclusions and engage us on a deeper level than if a definitive answer was provided. It will be interesting to see how my own speculations change after the real performance.
Already powerful without props and costume, I look forward to seeing Attempts in the BT with lights and music, which will be crucial in generating the sinister game show atmosphere. I am also excited to see how they use the black-box theatre space, which lends itself to a play addressing dark themes and suggesting entrapment in a game that cannot be simply left. Altogether a dark, knotty, yet expertly performed piece of theatre, Attempts on her Life is definitely not one to miss!
Attempts on her Life will be on at the BT Studios from 7th – 12th March (8th Week)