Orange Tree Theatre, London – until 2 December 2017
Oh, Poison is a heartbreaker, that’s for sure. The trauma of grief, and the perils and risk that comes from trying to move on, laid bare. This powerful two-hander from Lot Vekemans has already been a big hit overseas in both New York and Europe (this run at the Orange Tree marks its UK debut) and it’s easy to understand why.
An anguishing set of circumstances have brought a separated couple back together – temporarily – after nine years without having set eyes upon each other. For it was nine years ago that their young boy died; an accident so traumatic that it drove them apart almost instantly. Now, years later, they find themselves sitting opposite each other, the only people in a sparsely furnished waiting room, for news on the reburial of their son’s grave following reports of poison in the soil of the cemetery grounds.
Claire Price and Zubin Varla are superb as the unnamed couple. Their initial civilities and routine compliments belie the awkwardness and tension in the air. Man and Woman circle each other, at times almost literally, as they tread that fine line between polite manners and pointed questions to uncover what the other has been doing in all these years. But the bricks are loose in the walls that these two have built up around them and it’s not long before the first ones are dislodged, and the walls start to crumble down.
For such a simple set up, there is so much being explored here. Lots Vekemans looks at so many aspects and nuances of grief. The gendered portrayal of how grief impacts men and women differently is smart and exposed for its superficiality, but I felt there was even a comment on whether it’s possible that grief is a choice.
Hugely contentious, but is it possible that some *choose* to hold on to grief? Out of guilt, out of a need for identity, out of a need for the trauma to have resonance and meaning? Or is it simply that some of us can move on, and for others that isn’t a possibility? Nature vs nurture.
And what exactly does “moving on” mean?
And the very poison that Lots refers to in her play’s title… Here, that’s as much a reference to the poison that grief brought to this couple’s marriage as it is to the toxins in the cemetery grounds. Maybe it’s also a remark on the way grief can seep into our own bloodstream and poison us from the inside out, the way it can rob us of a life we could have had.
But for all the pain and examination of the legacy that most awful of accidents to befall a parent can bring, I don’t want you to stay away thinking Poison could be heavy and overwrought, for it really, really isn’t. For as much as this looks at grief, this also looks at healing. Subtly, but it is there. And it is that which I think lifts this play up into something really quite remarkable.
Artistic Director Paul Miller has led an extraordinary string of successes at the Orange Tree, and he is back in the director’s chair here with some delicate touches that enhance the text wonderfully. For the years without contact between the two initially show in the uncomfortable silences and the physical distance, but this gives way to bursts of anger and recriminations. The display of needling and point-scoring a glimpse into how this relationship – like so many – fell apart.
But, without giving too much away, the play ends with one of the most remarkable acts of generosity. I think that’s what finally broke the lady on the other side of the theatre from me. She struggled hard to restrain the tears, but the dam broke. And it must have hit the couple in front of me too for, after the curtain calls and as the audience shuffled off to the exits, they shared a heartfelt embrace. Such is the power of great theatre…