Brian Friel’s Afterplay feels very much like a near cousin of a Chekhov play, tied closely to the settings and themes that we are so familiar with, from plays like Uncle Vanya and Cherry Orchard. But there is also something current about this play, there is little in the text that keeps us linked to any time or place, and as a result, I find myself able to easily relate to the base struggle of the two intriguing characters.
Afterplay is a two-hander across one-act, showing the developing relationship between Sonya and Andrey, two near-strangers who met the night before at dinner. Little can be said of the plot, not much happens to be honest, and yet I leave with the distinct feeling that I have gone on a deep, personal journey with the characters. The polarity shifts measurably by the end of the play and two very different people leave the stage from those who first entered it.
This change is assisted greatly by the fantastic lighting design of Malcolm Rippeth, the light dapples and tracks the stage, leading your eyes, but also your emotional journey. The changes are subtle but distinct in their effect, giving the feeling that the light is a living, breathing part of the production, a third actor on the stage.
John Haidar’s direction is gripping, trusting in the strength of the actors and the dialogue, rather than employing an overly complicated blocking of this minimalist scene. Throughout the performance, there isn’t a single moment where you are left feeling that the actors are not fully immersed within this world. There is intimacy with every prop, from the way they eat their food, right down to how they fold and place their papers into their bags, I feel they know these characters and their habits just as well as they know their own. Great time has clearly gone into making this world a reality, in every detail, and then to deliver it all in a natural and spontaneous way is breath-taking.
The set looks like a painting, in which the artist is drawing our attention from every angle to the actors at the centre of it, every inch of the set directs you back to them. The floor is tarnished mirrors, the sides reflective glass, the back wall a window to a simple white tree in lightly falling snow – yet also reflecting a shadow of the actors back at us. Set designer Lucy Osborne doesn’t allow the actors a lot of space, and as the scene goes on this gives the impression, much like with Chekhov, that they are trapped in a kind of purgatory; Friel constantly finds ways of pulling them back into one another, and never gives them a chance to leave.
But the most successful element of this production is the strength of the connection between its two actors, Mariah Gale and Rory Keenan. Their relationship throughout the show is believable and totally real, and the subtext of words unspoken is tangible. This was a culmination of absolute presence on the stage as well as full attention to each other, the trust I see in these two actors is wonderful and rare. As well as all this, Gale and Keenan display unrivalled mental agility in navigating this word-heavy text; the audience doesn’t miss a word and the message is conveyed perfectly, with clarity and conviction.
Not one single element of this Haidar’s production is out of place for me, bar the fact that, coming in at a run time of only one hour, I just want more!
Afterplay is playing at The Coronet Theatre until 4th April. For more information and tickets, see www.thecoronettheatre.com