Perhaps it is just a clever confounding of expectations by Robyn Winfield Smith who directs with pace and a palpable energy
It’s that time of year when days get shorter, nights get longer and tale telling revolves around the supernatural. Just a couple of days ago the last thing I saw on stage, Here, was (partly) a modern day take on the ghost story. Now for good measure comes Grey Man, a piece of digital theatre written by Lulu Raczka, which investigates similar spooky territory. The piece has been subtitled “A Stage And Screen Experiment” which, as it turns out, is exactly what it is. This monologue began life way back in 2016 as an onstage piece and went through various iterations. As production company Liminal states, in one version the script was played out “twice consecutively, in order to show two parallel women, one half the age of the other, taking wildly different paths in response to precisely the same events in this powerful short play about the stories we tell to get through life. Same script, different story”.
And the key element of that idea has been incorporated into this digital version with the single monologue switching back and forth between a younger and older actor sometimes for discrete passages and sometimes even in mid-sentence. It’s a disarming technique but one that works smoothly in the context of an edited film and brings an interesting slant to what might otherwise be a simple piece of narrative.
The central character(s) Maya tells several tales about her older unseen/unnamed sister and the sort of stories and urban myths which she used to tell when they were both younger. Designed to be scary they continue to haunt Maya throughout her life. The other key figure which is evoked is that of the titular Grey Man, a take on the bogeyman of childhood who is out to get you. Is his pallor the result of some mystical supernatural happening or a more prosaic kind of lead poisoning? Either way he is a figure of terror for Maya.
Though it is not made explicit, my interpretation of the central character was that it is the same person speaking but at different stages of her life. Despite the years rolling by, Maya is still troubled by her memories and, a bit like the Ancient Mariner, has to keep retelling and reliving her experiences in order to make sense of her existence. This notion is enhanced by the excellent characterisation and playing of Kate O’Flynn (younger) and Kristin Hutchinson (older); they use similar intonations, body language and gestures in their narration.
They also share a similar level of intensity as they swap the narration back and forth. Each is framed on screen side by side in adjacent rooms. Like the character(s) these are the same but different. The younger woman inhabits a spare minimalist version of the space. The older’s room is cluttered and shabby as though a lifetime of detritus has been acquired; this works on both a literal and a symbolic level. Jason Kelvin’s production design certainly enhances the text and helps to make sense of the nuances of the piece.
That said, I confess to feeling somewhat mystified by the ending. One of the Mayas escapes from the confines of the room while the other remains to start the story cycle all over again. Logic insists that it should be the younger who stays to repeat the tales and the older who finally breaks free; yet it is the other way round. Perhaps it is just a clever confounding of expectations by Robyn Winfield Smith who directs with pace and a palpable energy which is supplemented by the sound score of Max Pappenheim. Perhaps I’ve been barking up the wrong tree in terms of interpretation; it’s clearly a piece which can be viewed through a number of different lenses. Perhaps I just need to rewatch (and at just 30 minutes that’s eminently doable) to see if there’s something I’ve missed. Perhaps!