Finding the Answer to Love Question Mark
Penny Flood reviews the latest production at the Tabard Theatre
Love Question Mark explores the different meanings of love and sexual relationships in a sharply observed, thought provoking – and provocative – piece.
It is a two-hander involving Michael Smith (Stuart Sessions) and Maria (Clare Cameron - pictured below), who come from very different backgrounds, with very different experiences and expectations. It poses an emotional challenge for the actors in the small Tabard theatre where they are almost on top of the audience on an almost bare stage. But they fulfil writer and director Robert Gillespie’s ambitions beautifully, at times engaging the audience directly to become part of the discussion and ignoring us when they are dealing with each other.
Michael is alone on the stage at first, talking aloud to himself and reading snippets of literary, philosophical and scientific quotes, as well as occasionally addressing the audience and bouncing ideas off us. “What’s bread?” he asks, and we all know the answer. ‘But what is love?’. We couldn’t help him with that one, so we laughed.
A central theme is his emphasis on how non-human creatures - like swans, chimpanzees and sparrows - have an easy answer to ‘love question mark’ because the way they behave with the opposite sex is programmed into them. Swans mate for life, while young female chimpanzees and sparrows are shocking flirts, happy to have as many mates as they can. But where do humans fit into this? Are we meant to be faithful to one person for life or is it OK to have several partners? And who says what is right?
Michael is a widower of three years, a retired estate agent with a beige sweater and a stamp collection. He thought he was a swan, mating for life. But the sight of a pair of shapely women’s legs in the supermarket gets him aroused and confused. Does this make him unfaithful to his late wife? And what of his moment of infidelity while at a conveyancing conference in Birmingham? Does it count if you do it at a conference? Is what he feels an emotional or hormonal reaction and does it matter? In all this confusion and self doubt who can blame him if he feels nostalgic for his stamp collection?
His self-deprecation and forays into the chemical workings of the brain and their role in sexual arousal are very funny. But it’s far from being a comedy. The humour is laced with deep sadness, tragedy and downright nastiness. Sometimes you’re left with a sense of unease because some of the humour is very dark and I felt embarrassed for laughing at it myself. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an emotional roller coaster, but it does make you jump.
Once he comes to terms with his need for a woman, he takes the audience on his voyage of self discovery. Enter the beautiful, sexy Maria, a girl to whom life has been violent and nasty but who has learnt to survive by making shrewd choices in her limited world. Michael has her shipped over from Argentina and he’s appalled when he asks her what about her ambition and she says ‘not to get AIDS’.
Maria offers sex on demand but not love. Raped by her brother and pimped by her mother (who she says loved her, but the money she got from the street sweeper fed the family for a week), Maria wins our sympathy as she tells her story: lots of men, lots of sex, lots of brutality - but no love. She thought she’d come close to it once but even that let her down. And so they spar with each other bringing the audience in at times, with plenty of sharp one-liners, literary quotes, and a hilarious take on the hypocrisy of the church and state.
It changes gear in the second act. While they are still pondering the main theme, their roles change and an unexpected development occurs. Michael is still dependent on Maria for sex and Maria is still dependent on Michael for her food and lodging, but who is now boss and who is slave? You can figure out this and many other question marks for yourselves. Maria seems to know the score as she closes the play with a little known eighteenth century poem which ends:
Be gay and good humoured, complying and kind,
Turn the chief of your care from your face to your mind,
Tis here that a wife may her conquest improve
And hymen shall rivet the fetters of love*
Writer and director Gillespie is also an actor, who wrote sketches for the 60s hit satirical TV show ‘That Was the Week That Was’, so he’s got a good ear for comic timing, although a bit more dramatic acting out of some ideas that are only spoken by Michael could perhaps have improved its dramatic impact.
Gillespie wrote this play to explore the relationship of his parents. They stayed together all their lives but he felt his mother may have at times regretted marrying the wrong man, rather than the romantic ideal one that is meant to be waiting for us. His good, kind, faithful father was an ordinary bloke who held down a steady if boring job while his mother, a good kind woman, really wanted a more romantic figure, a man who would bring her flowers and chocolates, serenade her at a balcony and adore her while she lay on a couch dressed in the finest clothes. But in spite of this mismatch, they stayed together and called it love because that’s what convention demanded. He says this showed him that bonding with another human being was a matter of personal choice and luck not public spectacle.
That was his starting point for this play, which is part of a trilogy; the other two look at War and Death. So far they aren’t booked in at the Tabard but I certainly hope they will be. It may not be everybody’s cup of sweet tea, and some may find it offensive, but it is overflowing with ideas and has much sharp and witty writing and two excellent performances. And for many, that should be worth a trip down Turnham Green Terrace.
November 11, 2011