Suicide. Terrorism. Adultery. The themes of Marion Blott’s Moormaid don’t suggest comedy, but Marion Blott’s script is at its most promising when she offsets the darkest places of the human psyche with humour. This three-actor play – all in their UK stage debuts – is heavy going, but offers just enough light relief to keep you watching.
Blott throws us into a Berlin apartment where struggling artist-turned-art-teacher Melissa – played by Sarah Alles-Shahkarami – crushes walnuts with the bottom of a whiskey bottle just before she tries to kill herself. But a phone call from her offstage husband, and finally a knock at the door from her former lover and art student Mehdi (Moe Bar-el), saves her. But while Melissa and Mehdi reconnect through art, you soon learn that Mehdi has his own ghosts when Khan (Ali Azhar), his dead brother, appears, haunting him after he left him to die while they both fought for ISIS.
Alles-Shahkarami as Melissa has a strong start and during the opening scene when dialogue is sparse, she commands the stage and creates the perfect tension to build up to her failed suicide. Yet, sadly the rest of the script doesn’t manage to maintain this high level of drama, and performances suffer as a result.
Likewise, the relationship between Melissa and Mehdi has undeniable chemistry, and the physicality of it sweeps you away in it at moments, but it doesn’t quite work in that the art and its meaning never seems to really tie in with Moe Bar-el’s Mehdi and that undermines their connection.
In fact, the artist line can feel a little overplayed and while the painting on skin to demonstrate Melissa and Mehdi’s intimacy through art is touching, and the Magritte-style kissing under the cashmere scarf with their faces hidden subtle, the art theory-commentary to their sex/dance scene, although a nice idea, sadly feels like a distraction and is too wordy.
Conversely, without wanting to sound like a slave to stereotype, Melissa’s costumes recall the corporate world rather than an artist, or even teacher, and this slightly derails your belief in her practice and lifestyle as an arty-Berlin type.
Yet, the atmosphere created by the set is just right. Sophia Simensky’s design with its light pine and Perspex is bright, light and with just enough touch of IKEA to create an eerie contrast with the dark storyline, and it’s a real feat. While Tim Boyd must be commended for his lighting which creates the right mood at the right moments without fault.
This is an intriguing piece with some beautiful moments – Melissa’s mantra “To choose is to commit, and to commit is to be free” lives with you afterwards. Yet, Moormaid still needs some refinement before it can fulfil its potential.
Moormaid is playing Arcola Theatre until 19 May
Photo: Anika Wagner