Debuting an intimate two-hander that reflects on thirty years of married life, using an ‘in real life’ married couple, has the potential for great success as well as tremendous disaster. The risk, it seems, is worth taking for director Hannah Price’s Boa, as Boa (Harriet Walter) and Louis’s (Guy Paul) exceptional chemistry is the cornerstone of their tangential trips down the memory lane of a thirty-year marriage.
Clare Brennan’s new text, adapted during rehearsals to embrace the insights of Walter and Paul, traces the story of the couple as they creep through middle age, whilst flitting back into memories of their youthful infatuations and flirtations. Boa was the British darling of dance in New York and Louis was the Pulitzer Prize-winning “danger junkie” of war-time correspondence – the perfect protagonists for a liberalist love story. The play is effectively a single conversation punctuated with flashbacks that, in less than 90 minutes, covers their romance from the first flushes of love in the New England forests to the struggles of waning passions and old English hospitals.
Serpentine symbols abounds throughout the piece, yet it isn’t the title creature but the references to the Ouroboros (the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail) that feel most pertinent. The symbol of a self-perpetuating cycle resonates with the couple’s need to reflect upon and unpick their history – almost as if their compulsion to analyse the past is what keeps them moving forward. Frustratingly, there is a later revelation that over-explains the premise and forces the audience back out of the private sphere of the relationship we have become invested within.
As a veteran of the boards, Walter is not phased by our proximity within the 98-seater space; we see the whites of her eyes glisten with tears and share Boa’s revelry as she senses an audience is present for her impromptu recitals. She regularly invites us into the heart of her performance. Paul’s careful timing allows vulnerability to occasionally break through the façade of stoicism, in a heart-wrenching echo of a lifetime witnessing suffering. Yet there’s also something about Paul that feels like we’re catching a glimpse of Matthew McConaughey’s future, all southern drawl, curly locks and terribly charming.
Boa is an insightful text, yet I don’t think the style does it justice. Forgive me fellow theatre fans for what I’m about to say – but I think this would make an excellent film, rather than a theatre piece. The back and forth of their reminiscence and present day encounters offers such rich pickings, somewhere between a better executed One Day and the bemusing brilliance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. That said, Price’s production is an important opportunity to remind audiences that life doesn’t stop at 35 (especially for women). Love and loss for these characters is just as great and painful, and though they’re not far off state retirement age, these performers are as vivacious, sensual and silly as ever.
Boa is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 7 March. For more information and tickets, see the ATG tickets website. Photo by Helen Murray.