Orange Tree Theatre, London – until 3 March 2018
Truism #1: Happy relationships seldom make for interesting plays. Truism #2: Relationships rarely end neatly. Often they conclude messily, with pain and confusion felt by at least one of the couple.
In Brad Birch’s Black Mountain, which is directed by James Grieve, we meet Paul (Hasan Dixon) and Rebecca (Katie Elin-Salt) who have taken a trip to the countryside. It’s soon apparent this ‘retreat’ isn’t for a rest or holiday, but a chance to talk about their relationship. If things weren’t clear enough already, we hear they are sleeping in separate rooms.
For the most part, Paul is doing his level best to make their stay as stress-free as possible and make the atmosphere amenable, but it’s perceptible that he’s tense too. This, however, is exacerbated by the surprise arrival of Helen (Sally Messham) outside the lodgings…
Within the play there is a reference to the cutting down of the local trees and how slow they are to grow back – an apt analogy for the erosion of trust within Rebecca and Paul, and the near-impossible task of ‘nurturing it’ to its original state.
There are also several instances where Paul feels compelled to tell the truth, in case even withholding information will get him into further trouble with Rebecca. However, he won’t tell her about their ‘visitor’. Nor will he answer Helen’s question which would clarify the true nature of their relationship and help her find closure. Would the answer really be so damning? Can he even be truthful with himself?
The sound and light design by Peter Small and Dominic Kennedy plays a big part in creating the atmosphere in Black Mountain, heightening the psychological elements such as Paul’s paranoia. While there are no ‘ghosts’ to speak of, the ‘haunting’ that takes place only serves to show that one doesn’t leave the past behind. We take it with us wherever we are.
If I’ve one observation about Birch’s play, it’s that there is little evidence to suggest why Paul wants to win back Rebecca so badly or why they connected at first. Similarly, why was he drawn to Helen in the first place? Physical intimacy? Someone who understands – or at least listens to – him? We’ll never know. Such are the questions within questions in the play, though it could be argued that we are meant to be just as ‘in the dark’ as the other characters – each reacting to the behaviour of the others.
In tandem with the themes of truth and closure, is that of pain. Overtly and obliquely referenced throughout, if Paul is incapable of truly hurting emotionally, Rebecca will extract – to use a Merchant of Venice reference – her ‘pound of flesh’ some other way. The splinter/’stigmata’ incident highlights this, but if only ‘pain’ and ‘penance’ are being sought, this excursion will be prove to be Paul’s ‘Passion’…