A lipsticked, kitten-heeled lady welcomes us as we enter the performance space. Her manner is friendly and polite; the smile plastered on her face is the standard-issue grin of an air stewardess. We sit on one side or the other of a gleaming, brightly-lit aisle and I notice the walls of clingfilm behind our seats.
If any amongst us manage to brush off this uncanny detail, we cannot help but notice that the safety announcement our hostess (Hannah Norris) gives us is not the usual airline spiel. We’re told that the play will involve complete darkness, and that there is only one exit. If we wish to leave, we must wait till the lights come back on, raise our hands and say the safety word. “Once you leave,” she explains, “you will never be able to return.” A few of us laugh, but we’re not sure if it was really meant as a joke.
The production is warning us: Cut is not an easy play. It does not wish its audience a pleasant journey.
Rather, the play does everything it can to tease and challenge its spectators. There is an overarching plot to the piece, but it is fragmented. We witness many short scenes, where one does not necessarily follow the last. We may think we’re rooted in the present, but suddenly we find ourselves forced into the past, made to listen to a memory of childhood fish torture. One moment the writing is focussed on banal chatter, the next, the audience’s focus shifts on to the threatening spectre of a man with an “ashen eye”. Glimmers of humour are juxtaposed with speeches of horror. The questions we want to ask of the play (“Why does she open the door?”) are instead asked to us, and we are forced to fumble for answers in our ignorance. The speaker switches her pronouns – sometimes she is ‘she’, sometimes ‘I’, sometimes ‘you’, as though encompassing the three Greek Fates that writer/director Duncan Graham cites as the inspiration for the work. And the lights keep going out.
Sam Hopkins, the lighting designer who designed his lighting and control system from scratch, is merciless: happily and repeatedly, he plunges us into blackness. The complete darkness has a strange effect on you: at some points, I found myself seeking out light to give some context to the otherwise complete nothingness. I also felt the heaviness of lightnessless, and kept closing my eyes, to stop the darkness weighing on them.
Ultimately, however, I did get more and more used to this awful blankness, as I got more used to the broken nature of the narrative, and the pieces of horror it contains. I watched on as terrible things happen, not sure if part of me was shocked or if I merely think I should be shocked. Another part of me is utterly unsurprised. The production bombards its spectators, and this constant battering forces us to acknowledge a world where so much trauma, threat, violence, darkness is – though awful – to be expected.
Do not buy a ticket to Cut if you are looking for a spot of entertainment after a long day. Make your way to the Vaults if you want to experience how a play can play with you, and gain a better understanding of the potential of bold, theatrical experimentation.
Or, indeed, go to see Cut if you want to understand the potential of Norris: a performer who has complete mastery over a difficult text and a difficult production, and whose energy and dramatic range sets a standard for what can be achieved by an actor in a one-man or one-woman show.
But remember, you have been warned: do not complain if you leave this play tired, drained, or confounded. It never promised you an easy ride.
Cut is playing The Vaults until 31 July. For more information and tickets, see thevaults.london
Photo: Gary Cockburn