I enter the space to the sound of screams as a beam of light tries to escape beyond sheets of plastic hanging at the back. Sugar cubes are lined in squares around the stage and a wheelchair is waiting expectantly.
Plunged into darkness, we re-open to the first of the images that Mortgage uses to navigate its story, though story may not adequately describe David Glass’ spectacle. Written and directed with an Artaudian approach, the performance aims to tell the story of Mortgage (Briony O’Callaghan), as she finds herself treated by doctors at an asylum, the reasons for which escape her memory.
As the two “demonic” doctors in drag (François Testory and Simon Gleave), faces greyed and ghostly, try to cure her, more of the plot emerges; each approach forming the next image that triggers another recollection. Asserting itself in the realm of Theatre of Cruelty, the performance aims to pierce our subconscious with these images: slapstick electrocutions, miniature theatres pulled from throats, breakfast made on top of Mortgage as she sways in cascading cornflakes.
Whilst all of these are evocative, the way in which it is done is confusing. Striking physical action combined with Glass’s absurd text results in dark humour which is really quite enjoyable, although contradictory to its stylistic aims. This may be a case of bark over bite, as the action itself is distressing, yet the overall performance walks too far towards humour and shies away from the true, committed darkness that the work calls for.
Nonetheless, the performers manage to hold the space throughout in continued states of heightened energy expressed in movement, free and choreographed, as well as the challenging vocal performances.
There are moments of break, especially during choreographed sections of unison, as the actors briefly check their synchronicity. Perhaps this hints at the need for further rehearsal, as throughout the two doctors never quite manage to align perfectly. The movement needs to be much cleaner if the role is to be choral.
In the beginning, what is spoken is simple, repetitive, bare – precise to its intention. Frustratingly, the second half loses momentum, as most of the text is concentrated there. The performance would benefit from redistributing this more evenly, as in the absence of the piece’s most effective aspect, its movement, the text on its own fails to inspire the same engaged focus.
On paper, Mortgage has many of the elements of its genre: conceptual, grand characters; emphasising the aesthetic over the narrative; nonsensical episodic structure. Yet I still cannot ascertain its viewpoint or intention. The way in which the piece is structured does not allow a clear story to emerge, and in lieu of imagery to guide us to the end, I leave the space stimulated, though indifferent.
Mortgage is playing the Tristan Bates Theatre until 20 April. For more information and tickets, see the Tristan Bates Theatre website.