One person is leaving, another is hurt trying to stop them. That’s the crux of Part of That World, even if that description removes the artistry, and the weirdness, of this poem-monologue hybrid from writer Michael John O’Neill.
To restore these other elements and provide proper context, this short is told from the perspective of Robert (read brilliantly by Richard Standing) as he finds himself inexplicably swimming in a river, surrounded by fish, transforming into a merman, and hurtling away from his partner, Kirsteen.
The real joy of this piece comes from the speaker’s voice. O’Neill’s writing enables Robert to identify and engage with the nature around him, while retaining a wonderfully prosaic tone. It allows Robert to embrace, whilst simultaneously commentate on the peculiarity of the situation, and the listener is automatically carried along with him.
The words are undoubtedly enhanced with the reading from Standing. They gush out of him in a torrent and sweep around you like the river itself, as Standing draws on the liquidity of the writing. He conveys Robert’s gaze as he slides around, while the water carries him ever forward. One moment he’s focusing on the fish swimming with him, then a boy with an ice cream, then his clothes left behind – but the constant is the water all around.
There’s a tangible division within Robert as he notes Kirsteen comes to harm on the bank (“planking” into a concrete bollard as she chases after him). He’s concerned for her, and the care is palpable within Standing’s voice, but we as a listener are still reminded of the force of the river pushing him on. It makes us aware of their impending separation as Robert rounds the bend – unavoidable due to his submersion in the water, and perhaps brought about by his decision to get in the river in the first place.
This reading is accompanied by a video on YouTube – it is footage of the River Tay, shot during lockdown. However, the film has been edited into a blur, reminiscent of a kaleidoscope. Presumably, this was a decision of director Elizabeth Newman, but it doesn’t quite work. It undoubtedly holds the energy of the poem, yet it lacks the clarity. From the first line, Robert is propelled forwards, away from his old life and towards something new and bigger. The chaos of the video does not reflect that.
It’s worth noting, though, that Pitlochry Festival Theatre hopes to “share these new works ‘in the flesh’” when it reopens, and it is exciting to imagine how this rich and dynamic piece will transition to the stage.
One area of discomfort in Part of the World would be the violent imagery of Kirsteen’s injury, as she is abandoned by the speaker and the narrative, left covered in blood and plasma. The passage does effectively convey the theme of the poem, but in a world saturated by violence against women, a less visceral image may have been preferable.
Overall, this short does well to establish a tone, voice, and structure within its four-minute world. The poetry blends effortlessly with drama to create a unique and vivid piece.