Southwark Playhouse – until 9 March 2019
Perspective on matters of the heart is seldom attained easily. Closure (or lack of) plays a big part in this, but if there isn’t a willingness to talk, unresolved issues are never swept away – just kept to the periphery… Directed by Tricia Thorns and first performed 40-plus years ago, James Saunders’ Bodies examines two couples who meet for the first time after a decade apart. As neighbours and friends who ‘lived in each other’s pockets’, it was perhaps inevitable that feelings developed between them, leading to full-on affairs.
It’s evident from the very beginning that husbands and wives of the respective couples are very different from each other, and may also be another reason for the trysts – opposites attract. Anne (Annabel Mullion) is self-assured and not afraid to speak out at work, while Mervyn (Tim Welton) has never felt comfortable with authority – even though he’s a headteacher. In contrast, David (Peter Prentice) was an up-and-coming executive who revelled in business lunches and the usual accoutrements. But that was before he seeked therapy, convincing his wife Helen (Alix Dunmore) of its validity. And while David is very happy to talk about the ‘breakthrough treatment’, for Helen it’s a private affair – and not the panacea that her husband thinks it is.
Knowing the history that both couples have, the question is raised about whether they should ever ‘meet’ again – and what purpose would it serve. One might expect there to be fireworks from the off, but the real ‘tension’ in the play stems from the ‘passiveness’ of David and Helen, and their ‘indifference’. Not just towards the emotional weight of the past, but the enjoyment of anything on a physical level – even food and drink.
Welton does a great job of conveying Mervyn’s exasperation with the ennui of the former lovers. Under the aegis of alcohol, he picks away Helen and David’s ‘Stepford Wives’ demeanour – the ‘scab’ that hides the mess and pain beneath the surface. The suppressed, seething anger by Mullion’s Anne is a nice counterpoint to Mervyn in their role reversal.
It’s not easy to convey equanimity without it coming across as ‘fake’ or ‘unreal’, but the ‘stillness’ of Prentice and Dunmore is perfectly executed. In the case of Prentice, his ‘micro’ facial expressions reveal the constant effort to remain on top of his emotions, while with Dunmore, her body language reveals early on how ‘unready’ Helen is to consciously bring the memories and emotions of yesteryear to the surface.
There is an important subplot in the play, involving one of Mervyn’s students and the use of Wittgensteinian reasoning to deconstruct and neuter the power of words. Tying in with the disconnect and ‘numbness’ that David and Helen have deliberately engendered to deal with the past, it’s up to Mervyn to champion the necessity of embracing pain and loss in the human experience. As the cornerstone of art and the mortar of relationships, the past pain we carry around shapes us – makes us who we really are. If we lose that, we lose ourselves.
© Michael Davis 2019
Bodies runs at Southwark Playhouse until 9th March.
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