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previous works The Memory of
Water and Five Kinds of Silence both featured characters haunted by the
absence of family members. In both plays a character who exerted powerful influence in the
past but who was now deceased was nonetheless constantly present, both in dialogue and, in
both cases, as a ghostly character composited from symbolism and memory.
Stephenson's new play, Enlightenment, begins with another
variant on the same theme as mother Lia (Ingrid Cragie) and stepfather Nick (Mark Lambert)
anxiously await news of their son Adam, vanished many months hence in the Far East. They
presume he is dead, though they cant quite face the reality of this, so much so that
Lia has turned to dotty spiritualist Mrs. Tindle (Jan Carey) for insight.
Though well acted and sharply written, the first act largely covers
familiar ground as the characters contemplate absence, loss and uncertainty, searching for
structure and meaning in the perennially irresolvable narrative of their lives. The action
steps up a gear when the vanished youth is seemingly found.
Where Act One is largely contemplative, Act Two evolves into a Brimstone
& Treacle type psychodrama. The young man, as it turns out an apparent
amnesiac in possession of Adams personal papers, is taken in by Lia and a reluctant
Nick and slowly reveals his darker side. This changes the game for everyone: playwright,
characters, and audience. The play suddenly becomes a suspense drama, the shift in genre
triggered by the active presence of a character previously safely contained by his
distance from events.
With each movement towards outright grand guignol (which comes with a
converse movement towards minimalism in set decoration and lighting as props are
systematically removed from the stage), the play brings its own thematic concerns into
focus through a different generic lens. It is still a play about absence, but now the
reason for the original absence (terror in the world - the son vanished after the Bali and
Jakarta bombings) becomes a living, destructive force present in the home of its central
characters (terrorized by a psychopath). The search for meaning goes on, but with more
urgency as the personality, motives, and ultimate goal of this mysterious stranger force
the other characters to face their prejudices, preconceptions and fears.
Stephenson claims that the play should be seen as "a tragedy
played as comedy," and there is a blackly comic thread running through both acts.
Audience skepticism is invited by the characterizations of the spiritualist and an odious
journalist played by Amy Marston, both of whom may be either outright liars or utterly
self-deluded. Lias attempt to de-clutter her life and find a pure center where she
can be free of her anxieties (which explains why the set is stripped bare) is also shown
to be an act of desperation. Her self-absorption and desire to do right by
taking this surrogate son into her life is shown to be non-productive, ultimately only
leading to another form of trauma.
Enlightenment is well performed and moves at a swift pace.
Craigie sustains a sense of inner tension mixing hope and despair which eventually turns
to fury, giving a measured, well-developed characterization. Marston is appropriately
despicable as the self-centered journalist, and Christopher Adlington manages to become
more sinister by degrees with convincing ease as the ersatz Adam.
Director Ben Barnes sustains the tension throughout both acts by using
the increasingly bare stage to move his cast around, and Rupert Murrays lighting is
given a central role by Stephensons explicit script instructions that "The
effect should be a cross between a Bill Viola video installation and a Dutch interior. By
the end, the room is an empty box, lit like light inside an eggshell."
Though it is a concoction of familiar elements both thematically and
stylistically, the overall result is provocative and funny enough to be of interest. The
play is of particular interest relative to Stephensons other work though. It is
cheerily and darkly extroverted where The Memory of Water and Five Kinds of
Silence were introverted, and though this has no bearing on its value, it does give
pause for thought.
- Harvey O'Brien