Patrice Etienne’s Venus/Mars joins a stream of new plays based around the monologic form, where monologues are injected with variety, insight and humour. In these plays, spoken conversations are embellished and contradicted by inner monologues with, on occasion, one actor enacting various parts in recreating this dialogue and sometimes a pair interact. Venus/Mars, currently showing at the Old Red Lion Theatre, joins Richard Marsh’s Dirty Great Love Story and Luke Barnes’s Chapel Street in following a couple’s relationship, started on a night out. Whilst it contains many of the same successful ingredients, Etienne’s play suffers by comparison.
Etienne’s writing is often truthful and incisive, but it lacks witty bite and each of the character’s declaration of the other’s intelligence is self-defeating: it exposes the writing’s lack of layered sophistication. Whilst the pair’s moment of sexual fulfillment is as well written as it is executed, the flirtatious chat that leads up to their union feels lacklustre. And, in the same double edged way, whilst there are often moments where Etienne successfully inhabits the female psyche with Michelle, the causes for relationship fissures feels too one-sided and it is often evident that the breakdown is being seen from a man’s point of view.
Rikki Henry’s directorship likewise shows promise but doesn’t quite hit the mark. There are a number of intriguing touches: the use of Jill Cardo as a spare body that interacts with, reflects and ultimately comments on, the pair, the interchangeable representations of violence and sex; Adrian Gee’s hanging light bulbs and Cardo’s skilled music playing at key points in the narrative. However, these don’t add up to convey a cohesive directorial approach. Combined with the play’s predictable and inherently limited theatrical form, quite static performances and a sparse set, the piece lacks some necessary drama.
Samantha Pearl’s performance as Michelle is good, with fine control over her speech, body and facial expressions. Adrian Decosta as Daniel is able too, though he sometimes fumbles with lines and when he interacts with Michelle he adopts an insincere tone that highlights the pair’s lack of overwhelming chemistry. Both are engaging, likeable and sporadically funny, though our connection to both their characters doesn’t go beyond that.
The third character of musician/performer doesn’t quite work within the piece. Whilst it adds a much needed extra dimension, Cardo’s role and contribution has not been sufficiently developed by writer and director, though she does perform the part with gusto. I still don’t understand what provoked her contortions of anguish and pain though, or what their purpose was… they happened at different points in the play yet seemed rather indistinguishable.
Ultimately, an enjoyable theatrical experience, if a tad long. Venus/Mars’ shortcomings are only so apparent when it is placed amongst others of its genre. If it’s your first exposure to this type of play you may well find it delightful.
Venus/Mars is playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 15 June 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Old Red Lion Theatre website.