On Innocence and Depravity
Anthony Nielson’s Stitching at The Wild Project
I have a theory—half-baked and probably impossible to confirm—that new British plays seen by New York audiences don’t even come close to representing the most interesting work happening in the uk at any given time. The reverse is true enough, after all—with the exception of a small handful of American artists who get their big break in London or Edinburgh, new work that crosses the Atlantic tends toward more commercial, mainstream fare. Fair enough—but no one should (or indeed could) mistake mainstream theater for anything groundbreaking or innovative.
The more interesting international exchanges, Anglo-American or otherwise, seem to be emerging from the grassroots, from low-lying organizations like the Play Company or PS 122—or Electric Pear Productions, currently mounting the American premiere of Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson’s Stitching at The Wild Project on East 3rd Street. Neilson is usually lumped in with the “In Yer Face” movement, mostly represented in the United States by the likes of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. Superficially at least, Stitching shares some of the same methods and obsessions of that particular school. The play’s 2002 premiere at the Edinburgh Festival was marked by walkouts spurred by the play’s content (and predictably, this was the focal point for the media—a contemporaneous Guardian article refers to it as a “Sex Play” in the headline, and reduces the play to its grimmest moments); the play’s title (spoiler alert) also refers to a particularly grim body modification.
The problem with the “In Yer Face” classification, or any lumping together of an otherwise disparate group of artists, for that matter, is that it attempts to pigeonhole radically different—and differing in quality—plays and playwrights. While there are clearly common elements among the IYF playwrights (mostly the intense alienation of late-capitalist society and the bleakness of Blairite, there-is-no-alternative neoliberalism), it’s a mistake to lump the deep theatrical imagination of a Sarah Kane with the glib, Tarantinoesque gimmickry of a Martin McDonagh. Underneath the sexuality and violence of Stitching, there lies a compelling, vital story of identity and (un-)reality, reminiscient of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal and Don DeLillo’s play The Day Room. By using time-shifts, and having the main characters (the lovers Abby and Stu) role-play, Neilson sets up a slippery world in which we are never sure exactly what to believe, and a narrative that defies expectations in multiple, exciting ways. Starting with a fairly standard scenario—Abby and Stu making a life-changing decision, presumably whether or not to have a child—the play quickly disorients the audience with the same two characters occupying vastly different worlds and identities, (thankfully) with no context given to the audience. After this initial disorientation, it begins to become clear that the play is toggling between an (at first) undisclosed emotional trauma and the intense, sadomasochistic role-playing of a grieving couple. The big reveal of the play is not the much-publicized brutality or perverse fantasies of the protagonists, but instead, their deep and essential humanity. The play uses time-shifts to place its climactic moment not at the characters’ greatest heights of depravity, but at a moment of innocence, before their journey begins. Like Pinter or Kane, the cold-blooded emotional and physical violence in the play masks a delicate vulnerability, a tragic heart as large and compassionate as that of any of the great tragedies, from the Greeks to Ibsen and Chekhov to Brecht and Beckett to Albee and Miller. In fact, the grief at the center of Stitching proves more powerful and moving than any weepy, movie-of-the-week melodrama, precisely because—and not in spite of—its rough honesty.
Also notable in this production is the performance of prominent Israeli actress Meital Dohan, best known in this country for her role in the TV show Weeds—an interview with her at the well-regarded Brooklyn Who Walk In Brooklyn can be found at www.whowalkinbrooklyn.com.
Stitching runs at The Wild Project through July 19—info at www.stitchingtheplay.com.
Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.