Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 23 December 2017
Guest reviewer: Liam Rees
Initially How to Disappear seems to be a new addition to the classic, British State-of- the-Nation plays in its searing critique of the government’s welfare policy. But Morna Pearson has great fun in turning the genre on its head with a twist that is so central to the play that I can’t avoid including spoilers.
The plot is simple: agoraphobic Robert (Owen Whitelaw) hasn’t left his room in about 20 years and is reliant on benefits, his sister, Isla, (Kirsty Mackay) is his only connection to the outside world, and Jessica (Sally Reid) is a benefits assessor fixated on proving he is fit for work. The social commentary on the banality of evil and the absurd cruelty of the Tories’ benefit sanctions bubbles up amongst some amusing back and forth between the trio but it’s Pearson addition of sci-fi and magical realism that elevates How to Disappear from the typical Serious Play About [insert topical subject here].
In Jessica, Pearson has created one of the most thoroughly punch-able fictional characters since Dolores Umbridge, with the same smiling, sadistic sense of moral superiority as she threatens Robert with sanctions “for his own good”. At points, she feels like a fairly two-dimensional parody as she twists Roberts words to declare him fit for work before declaring him fit for work and boasts about all the other claimants she’s “sniffed out”. Consequently, she’s very clearly “the baddie” that we’re supposed to unanimously and unequivocally hate: the Scrooge waiting to be shown the error of her
However, there are strange happenings in Robert’s cupboard and his obsessive behaviour belies an unbelievable truth: he’s actually a different Robert from a parallel universe, which explains many of the questions that Pearson has planted throughout the play. Jessica, naturally, investigates his cupboard and is transported to a parallel universe where she promptly learns just how easily someone’s situation can change. It’s a fun twist that complicates Pearson’s central message as the problematic issue of parallel universes is wont to do. On the one hand, it reveals the arbitrariness of the paths our lives have taken and the endless possibilities that have influenced them, leaving us with the simple lesson: don’t judge other people, you don’t know what they’ve been through.
Between Jessica’s grotesque abuse of power and Isla’s tirade about being bullied, Pearson paints a damning portrait of the society we live in where the victims get hit even harder thus foregrounding the message advocating for basic human empathy.
However there’s another problem that parallel universes raises. In the infinite versions of the world we live in then everything that possibly can happen will eventually happen which can also absolve us of any sense of guilt or responsibility: sure, in this world you contribute to the deaths of thousands of poor people due to benefit sanctions but, don’t worry, there’s another world in which you’re a saint. Pearson notably chooses not to pursue this issue, keeping the play tightly wound up and local in its outlook rather than letting itself get swallowed up by the immensity of its subject.
Becky Minto’s set design echoes this and captures the all-too- real, cramped squalor that Robert lives in, a tiny box in the inky vastness of Traverse 1 while Kai Fischer’s lighting design hints at the multitude of other worlds beyond Robert’s door. All things considered How to Disappear is a genuinely exciting piece of theatre that tackles serious social issues with humour, compassion and style, leaving us with complex questions to chew over. If this is a sign of things to come from the Traverse then I’m very excited.
How to Disappear runs through 23 December.
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