“Does it hurt?” – a question at once hopeful, sadistic, tender, and a strange inquiry to make after a lightning strike – it echoes like a sad refrain throughout Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries. Constantly touching on our hopes and fears, this incisive two-hander has its European premiere in the suitably intimate Gate theatre. Director Justin Audibert offers a potent and poignant peepshow of doomed friendship, where the traverse staging is used to devastating effect, exploiting our oft-repressed anxieties about the frailty of the human body.
Falling in and out of the non-linear narrative, we follow two broken individuals, Kayleen and Doug, through lives defined and dreams denied by every almost-said and never-done. Moving back and forth across decades of dysfunctional encounters, we bear witness to the aftermath of accidents and injuries self-inflicted or otherwise, in an unflinching exploration of how we’ll always hurt the ones we love.
Our introduction takes place in a school sick room where Doug (Felix Scott), a daredevil child with an apparent death wish, locks horns with shy Kayleen (Mariah Gale), a slightly neurotic but seemingly unscathed girl. This initial bout of sparring sets the benchmark for their life-long friendship that is also an eternal psychological battle of miscommunications and recriminations charged with endless longing. Gale ricochets between brittle vulnerability and fierce self-assertion as the profoundly damaged Kayleen. Struggling to contain her traumas within defensive deliveries that cut like broken glass, she drives the emotional violence of the play. Doug, on the other hand, is the main source of its wry, pitch-black comedy. A big-talking and kind-hearted boy who never quite grows up, the scrapes he gets himself into defy belief. “I’m not stupid, I’m brave,” his childhood self proclaims, and in Scott’s capable hands, Doug manages to be both cartoonishly bumbling and endearingly heroic.
This romance, however fated, is by no means idyllic. Like an inverted Greek tragedy, it is the brutal woundings, emotional and physical, that play out right before our eyes. During transitions, Gale and Scott change costumes onstage, perhaps exposing for a moment – as blank canvases in their white undergarments – the clean and trusting people Kayleen and Doug can never be. It’s difficult not to wince with heightened awareness of wounds that we have watched being concealed beneath clothes and bandages. The deep cuts may be painted, teeth blackened out and bruises daubed on but that doesn’t distance us from their pain.
Regardless of its morbid fascinations, Gruesome Playground Injuries is a deft and measured observation of extreme and difficult themes. Joseph’s language is most often sparse, direct and generously laced with expletives, but these stark phrases tremble and threaten to overspill with tension and yearning. The production’s ingenuity arises also from Lily Arnolds’s masterful set design; the narrow white platform the characters inhabit is a liminal space both devoid and all-encompassing of place and time – a sleek, minimalist hybrid of hospital, asylum and a hyper-modern boutique where the costumes hang on the walls, suggesting these lives are already mapped and the pair must helplessly play their parts. A game, a dance, a performance – a wounded, incomplete yet savagely beautiful duet – it reminds us of our desire for intimacy as well as our tendency to pull away.
Though it does take a few scenes to forge our connection with the duo, and the American accents sometimes jar, once you believe in them, you root for them wholeheartedly. Delivering an intoxicating sense of frustration that makes you want to bang their heads together (if their heads weren’t so battered already), it’s the bittersweet joy of their chaotic and fumbling trajectory that holds the play together. What Joseph suggests is that this is what life is really made of. It’s about dressing and undressing, wounds and bodies, hope and silence. A haunting work, Gruesome Playground Injuries will not just leave you reeling, but – like all great theatrical encounters – holds on and doesn’t quite let go.
Gruesome Playground Injuries is playing at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill until 16 February. For more information and tickets, see www.gatetheatre.co.uk
Photo credit: Ludovic des Cognets