Soho Theatre, London – until 4 May 2019
Guest reviewer: Lauren Gauge
Written with deft humour, Mouthpiece is a sharp scalpel used to dissect the highly sensitive and nuanced issues of representation, consent, agency and the ongoing ignorance between the opposing ends of the class system.
Set on Edinburgh’s Salisbury Crags, two people meet as one unwittingly interrupts the other’s suicide attempt. Albeit polarised in privilege and by their post codes, they are connected by desperate circumstances and a love of art, and are propelled towards a constructive but complicated friendship. Like many outwardly middle class projecting cultural capitals predominantly inhabited by the working classes, they live in the same city, oblivious to the perils of each other’s microcosms.
Declan (Lorn Macdonald) is 17, poverty stricken, dealing with domestic abuse and familial struggle. Libby (Neve McIntosh) is a lost middle-aged writer with and insurmountable writers block and a crisis of confidence and purpose.
Inspired by Declan’s talent for drawing and after introducing him into her cultured world of galleries – one he thought wasn’t for him – Libby discovers a story in Declan’s volatile home life and takes to creating a play inspired by him, which subsequently gets programmed at the Traverse Theatre. Complicit in her playwriting and falling into more than a platonic friendship, Declan and his character’s doomed fate are laid out before him in a way which he becomes increasingly dispirited and appropriated by. But who owns his story now? And how can he rewrite his own destiny?
With Mouthpiece, Hurley cleverly constructs a meta-theatrical production, deconstructing the creative journey of a playwright who is increasingly aware of her potentially exploitative position writing about a young man’s poverty, whilst simultaneously engaging in the same act the play appears to criticise. Hurley’s upbringing and experience is presumably unknown to most audiences at the time of watching, begging the question, does a viewer need to be aware of an artist’s creed to be able to fully comprehend and comment on it?
Kai Fischer’s contrastingly clean-cut set design is made up of large tiered steps and an angled over-sized rectangular frame that splices the fictional world and auditorium. A writing table straddles both sides enabling Libby to traverse from dialogue to direct address. The design is a fitting unlevel battleground for the problematic self-referential quandary to play out.
The intricate and intrinsic ‘play within a play, within a meta-theatrical play’ device is strikingly weaponised by director and former Traverse Artistic Director, Orla O’Loughlin. Layering an absurdist humour into the penultimate scene where Declan confronts the ethical issues head on with a dazzling summarising line: ‘Cause it’s all very well wanting to be a voice for the voiceless, eh. Until you find oot the voiceless have a fucking voice and mibbe they might want tay use it.’ The tension is permeating. The pain and scale of Declan’s torment is made evermore palpable as it is pointed towards the paying theatre-classes; as Libby’s play goes into production and Declan, near-unable to afford a ticket to see it and engage in the post-show Q&A, is forced to break the fourth wall to be able to say it.
Lorn Macdonald and Neve McIntosh are sensational. They build every beat of this two-hander to a provocative crescendo. Macdonald in particular balances a childlike rapture with a heartbreakingly intelligent perception of life’s most frustrating adversities. McIntosh reacts with a torn affection, infuriatingly self-serving whilst unenviably guilt ridden.
In a blindsiding final reveal, Hurley jeers the audience back to the ‘authentic’ story of Declan – and it’s here the real tragedy lies in the balance. As the curtain comes down, having transferred from Scotland to Soho, I imagine the same writhing feeling of anger and shame is universal. It’s lost little punch in its relocation from the Traverse and gained all the more adulation from reaching new audiences. Hurley’s masterful puppetry driven by two searing performances is a compelling creation. Mouthpiece draws attention to much more than the pornification of poverty, it exposes frustrations in the theatre and wider art-making industry, and it is all the more powerful and refreshing for it.
Mouthpiece runs through 4 May.
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