Originally written in German, and award-winning, Abyss begins in an unnamed German city. Three friends start a campaign to find their friend Karla, whose disappearance has received little press or police attention. Karla’s disappearance is first raised by her flatmate Sophia. Sophia’s sister, I, lives close by and is the roommate of Karla’s boyfriend Vlado. Over the course of two hours, the plot takes us through traumas of the past, forbidden love, and murder mystery.
The bare exposed-brick space is dressed by designer Lucy Sierra with a hefty table centre stage and a thick carpet of lightbulbs that drape the back wall and ceiling. Moments are occasionally soundtracked with an ocean roar that had our seats vibrating. At these moments the bulbs pulse to a blinding intensity before falling away again like a sparkle of gold dust. It is a spectacle.
A three-hander, Abyss kicks into top gear without a stutter. The actors deliver a multi-rolling stream of consciousness (Nicola Kavanagh playing I, our narrator; Iain Batchelor, Vlado and I’s new boyfriend, Jan; Jennifer English, both Sophia and Karla), folding their lines into each other with the rage and bulk of a rough sea. Director Jacqui Honess-Martin and movement director Anna Morrissey have the actors using the space in a free-flowing and clearly deliberate manner. Though it was often difficult to decipher a clear meaning in the characters’ stance and actions, there were exceptions. At one point Sophia sits at the table’s edge in the posture of a starving pride animal desperate for her sister’s solution to the dilemma. The animalistic image tells us far more about her savage state of mind than any human position might have.
Despite efforts to multi-role, the physical distinction between characters was inconsistent and lacking where most necessary between Karla and Sophia, Vlado and Jan. This made the opening more confusing than necessary. The central characters were strong however: Sophia’s pain, like any fresh wound is raw; Vlado’s visceral control over his environment, primal; and once you align yourself with the rhythm of delivery, I’s yarn is a pleasure to follow. Each new setting is textured, and painted for us in fine detail.
My real difficulty is with the chain of events: new dilemmas arise aplenty, but are all too often telegraphed and predictable. But though they are predictable, the action isn’t played in a way to make turns such as I and Vlado’s taboo trysts believable. It therefore becomes increasingly difficult feel sympathy for these characters. They tangle further as the plot progresses – a source of great tension and frustration for all involved – and ultimately break apart. But my sympathies at the end lay with those that had been side-lined and left 15 minutes earlier. I’m not sure that’s how I was meant to feel.
Abyss is playing at Arcola Theatre until 25 April. For tickets and more information, see the Arcola Theatre website.