‘I sometimes think we are being watched.’
James Grieve directs a new production of Birch’s Black Mountain at the Orange Tree Theatre. A raw psychological thriller, that shows the destructive virtue of love and the callous nature of humanity.
The beginning is evidently an enigmatic omen of what is to follow. A haze of grey mist and the sound of distant rain begin to fall over the auditorium. A laceration of white light splits the space and then instantly we are plunged into the darkness. All we can see is a torchlight that scans the outline of a faint figure. Who is the finger being pointed at?
Isolated from the outside world, Paul (Hasan Dixon) and Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt) decide to stay in the remote, Welsh countryside in order to repair their crippling relationship. It is assumed this is due to Paul’s past infidelities, though we are not quite clear how much Rebecca really knows. There is an underlying tension that begins to manifest through a series of fragmented conversations. This is beautifully executed by Elin-Salt and Dixon. With a feeling of formality, their timing is superb. Words become stilted, broken; they never stop scrutinizing each other. Even their silence becomes an agonizing time bomb.
The intimate space at The Orange Tree is extremely effective for this piece; this is partly due to the fact the actors are in such close proximity with the audience. We become this intrusive presence as we are practically on stage with the characters. Everything is magnified, even down to the heavy sound of breathing, the scratching of fingernails and the sweat pouring off their brows. This raw exposure immediately creates a charged space; we are observing something that should not be seen.
As Paul desperately tries to rectify his past mistakes, he turns into this naïve child who longs for Rebecca’s approval. It is evident he is distracted; it seems they are not alone. Is somebody watching them? It feels as if we are participating in a Hitchcock film; taps are left running, phones ring, even a black greasy bird is left mangled in the living room. As the couple work together towards open transparency in their relationship, it quickly turns murky and opaque. This atmospheric effect is cleverly reflected in the lighting’s monochromatic palette created by Peter Small. However the use of dramatic blackouts turned into a predictable series of events. Rather than sustain the momentum of the piece, it sadly became quite frustrating as it broke the rhythm of the narrative.
Elin-Salt begins to subtly shift in the second half of the piece. Her performance explores that unnerving similarity to a psychopath. We are exposed to what lies behind this calm, painted façade when we witness a moment of her sadistic thoughts and a flicker of cruelty. High at the edge of the mountain, Rebecca finds that everything has become clearer to her now; no longer is her mind within the clouds. It all makes sense.
All too quickly the piece rapidly evolves into a twisted, manipulative game. As Paul struggles to come to grips with what is reality, Rebecca is in control of the puppet strings. Has he become delusional? We spiral with him down this murky path of paranoia, where the truth begins to become misconstrued and lies begin to blur into the facts.
Apart from a few disjointed directions, Birch’s writing grips you. This piece is full of fast paced suspense and emotional intensity. Let’s just say you will not be relaxing in your seat afterwards.
Black Mountain is playing The Orange Tree Theatre until 3rd March. For more information and tickets, see www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk/home.