The System is out to set a world record. The world record for “the longest, live single take with a steadicam.” We’re told about it by an opening text card, before director Guy Unsworth appears to introduce it once more, with the nervy excitement of Derren Brown preceding one of his stunts. But it’s not Christopher Nolan-esque camera tricks which are the most interesting centrepiece of this new play, but the chameleon-like transformations performed by writer-actor Emily Head.
After this introduction, we swoop around to a cell. Designer David Woodhead’s tall metal bars and Matt Haskins’ fluorescent white lights suggest the title is referring to the justice system; however, this presumption is soon complicated, just like our initial impression of Head’s female protagonist, who greets us with a disarming smile as her solo prime suspect evolves into multiple. She plays several women interviewed about the murder of a man at his own birthday party, and as we learn about his abuse, the bars seem like a cage imprisoning them by the trauma’s legacy.
Head’s switching between these characters is almost synchronised to the flicker of the overhead lighting. Even without these transitions, however, she skilfully suggests different people by shifting between wide eyes and low scowls, from chewing fingers to flicking a wristband or plaiting her hair. Indeed, one of the most satisfying moments is when the camera pans down to watch her change character with a careful adjustment of her feet. With such subtlety here, there seems little need for some of the more obvious differentiators like obnoxious personalities and the portfolio of regional and national accents she employs.
It’s our job to discern the perpetrator amongst them all. The camera largely positions us as the interrogator, but occasionally moves in towards her, probing, or hovers over her, scrutinising. While the unedited, continuous shot is ultimately a filmic rather than theatrical device, it does work to enhance the drama. As well as mimicking the way an investigation plays out, and denying us any pause to recalibrate, its almost dizzying panning around represents the way a single perspective becomes fragmented.
Head’s well-paced plotting reveals the truth slowly. We gradually notice the effect of the man’s behaviour: she looks away at painful questions, complains about headaches and uncovers bruises on her arms. The decision for Head to multi-role cleverly portrays how trauma can splinter and rupture an individual’s identity. However, the play’s interest in throwing us red herrings and withholding clarity means it only lightly touches themes which could accentuate this and make it more disturbing, like the role of a father’s religious fervour in brutalising his daughter.
As the camera increasingly spirals round to reveal she’s talking effectively to herself, and references to “us” and “our” start to proliferate, you wonder who all these other people really are. Although the twist arrives slightly too early and abandons its earlier sophistication for a declarative over-explanation at the end — particularly through closing expository text stating how it relates to the title — there’s real skill and vision in how this production subverts the generic trappings of the murder mystery.
The System is available online until 5 December. For more information and tickets, visit The Original Theatre Company’s website.