There's an accidental festival of contemporary British drama in Toronto at the moment.
By coincidence, a couple of recent major West End hits are opening in local productions on Thursday night: Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's sprawling, rough-and-tumble exploration of English identity (produced by Outside the March and The Company Theatre); and King Charles III, Mike Bartlett's future English history play about what might happen when the Queen dies (produced by Mirvish and Studio 180).
For theatregoers interested in exploring the more unconventional corners of British theatre, however, Obsidian Theatre is currently staging a recent work by a lesser-known but important playwright who, like Butterworth and Bartlett, has at times been associated with London's Royal Court Theatre: debbie tucker green.
Her play hang – green uses lower-case for her name and the titles of her plays, as if she's trying to keep her profile low – places us in a room of some sort of government agency in the near future.
There, a woman (the Stratford Festival's Sarah Afful) is offered coffee, tea or water by a couple of smiling, folder-wielding bureaucrats identified in the script only as One and Two (Zoé Doyle and Vladimir Alexis). She might be under investigation – or she might be the victim of the crime.
For a while, hang leaves us hanging, endless possibilities rumbling in our heads. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that somebody did something terrible to the woman, her husband and her two children a couple of years before – and she's here to reveal a decision she's made related to that. She's read all the pamphlets, she's thought a lot about her choices – but the bureaucrats trip her up just as she's about to say what she's decided.
One: There's.… There's been a … there's also been a –
One: … Development, yes.
In her writing, it feels like green is following in the footsteps of an earlier, more experimental generation of British playwrights.
The first section of hang is almost like an homage to Harold Pinter's comedies of menace – a mysterious setting, an unsettling interrogation, sentences left dangling, the ominous unsaid. (Doyle, in particular, is excellent in this mode – saying seemingly kind lines in such a deliberate way that they come across as cruel.)
The second half of hang, once the exact situation the woman is in has been clarified, is closer to the darkly poetic near-future dystopias of Caryl Churchill.
What is fresh about green's writing is the way race factors in – or doesn't factor in – to the theatrical game she's playing. In hang, the woman is specified as black, and One must be played by a woman. But One and Two can be cast with an actor of any race – and Two can be male or female.
These casting specifications (and ambiguities) are intriguing to ponder as green plays around with language in her dialogue. The woman lets words flow out of her in an emotional, honest way, while the bureaucrats use them as a shield from meaning and responsibility.
Directors Philip Akin and Kimberley Rampersad let their actors use their natural accents rather than put on British ones – adding an extra linguistic layer to their stylized production, forcing the audience to listen and wonder what is odd on purpose and odd by circumstance. "Unsay what you've just said," the woman insists, when she learns of the "development;" meanwhile, the bureaucrats code-switch calculatedly, dropping Gs in one line, then picking them up the next.
As the woman, Afful gives a fascinatingly fluctuating performance – hot one moment, cold the next, threatening, then threatened. She's a sputtering volcano in a highly controlled environment – and it's unclear if she's about to erupt or go permanently dormant. When offered a glass of warm or chilled water, she asks for both and tries to calibrate her inner temperature by mixing them together.
The room she's in, beautifully brutalist in Steve Lucas's design, goes hot and cold along with her. The air conditioning is broken. "We'll be boiling in a minute and freezing the next," says One. "Bit of a nightmare," says Two. Indeed it is – one that fans of British theatre that doesn't make it to the West End will not want to miss.
Obsidian Theatre's hang continues to Feb. 25 (obsidiantheatre.com).