The long aftermath of trauma is the subject of Philip Ridley’s latest monologue for Southwark Playhouse building on the writer’s established relationship with the venue and the sensational The Poltergeist which premiered last November to an online audience. This latest play, running at a somewhat lengthy one hour and 45-minutes and available for only three live-streamed performances, takes a central character who feels out of kilter with the world around them and exacerbates their isolation with a violent encounter, the shadow of which they are unable to shake off even though it takes them in a more positive direction.
As Ridley has demonstrated time and again, he excels at these forensic character studies and the ability to create vivid, energetic scenarios with minimal need for physical sets or music to control the pace and the vacillating emotional landscapes of the individuals in his work. Tarantula has much in common with The Poltergeist, a companion piece almost, that uses (albeit differently) some of the same props – a domestic scenario that focuses on the complexities and demands of a family relationship particularly between opposite siblings, the chance of love or affection that allows the lead to see the possibility of experiences outside of the family unit and a fatal implosion of repressed anger with the need to maintain a surface impression of calm control and acceptance.
The focus here is a teenage girl, a voracious reader with a kind-heart who volunteers to help with afternoon teas and events for the elderly while preparing essays on Sylvia Plath that will hopefully lead to a place at Oxford. Instantly, Ridley creates a sound basis for Toni’s fast-paced dialogue and extensive vocabulary – a feature of his characters – but introduces several layers of narrative that conspire to derail her plans, not just in the stark experience of violence in the second act and its aftermath, but from the earliest moments of the play in the subtly-created and uneasy conditions of family life that place Toni at odds with the dubious lifestyle of her brother.
Structurally, Ridley does two key things with Tarantula; first, he allows Toni to tell her own story at different points in time from which she reflects back on a series of events recounted in vivid detail. In doing so, Ridley balances a complex interplay between narrative storytelling as Toni retrospectively reveals events in a chronological sequence addressed directly to the audience seen through the camera. But at the same time, Toni dramatically recreates and relives dialogue with other characters all of which, as with The Poltergeist, a single actor must portray, often in rapid fire conversational bursts.
The effect is illuminating as these two dramatic tools create both a sense of memories being relived and sometimes happily or painfully re-experienced while simultaneously giving the impression of events happening spontaneously in the present in which the viewer is absorbed by Toni’s detailed moment-to-moment recollections. This control of timelines is one of Ridley’s most remarkable skills, weaving between past and present reflection with ease while creating such a comparative energy that both feel equally valid, important and indivisibly entwined as a means to effectively portray multilayered themes and characters.
Ridley’s second structural device is much simpler, a beginning, middle and an end that divides the activities of the play into three distinct and not always obvious phases. The first is almost a romantic dream, an establishment period in which the audience is introduced to gently affable Toni and her shy flitation with Michael who takes her for their first date, although Ridley quietly undercuts some of the sweetness with hints of darker themes to come. The dramatic second section is staged quite differently, a disjointed experience in the immediate aftermath of trauma that has a nightmarish quality as flashbacks of an attack and its context are mixed with recurring dreams and an almost fractured consciousness in which Toni no longer makes sense even to herself.
The final act is a slow-burn surprise, one that simmers a little too long as the contained aftermath of violence finds its way to the surface. Ridley makes this a mirror of the first, using a similar date-based scenario that fills in some of the gaps in the year or so since the previous section and a tantalizing alignment between the circumstances – Michael and new date Bebe are both photographers, both encounters begin outside a repurposed building that has retained its original name and, crucially, Toni deliberately makes the opposite choice of direction second time around. At first it is unclear if this is a continuation of the play as we know it, or whether Ridley is perhaps offering an alternative version of reality which remains ambiguous enough to the end.
While there is sympathy for Toni, there is also a lingering suspicion that she might be an unreliable narrator, one over-romanticising her story for effect or to play down her less attractive qualities. In one of the earliest scenarios, Toni is seen having a vicious argument with her brother Mason known as Maz, who she clearly disapproves of and suspects, a disagreement their father has to break up. None of this fully accords with the timid and nervous girl who does charity work and hides behind her Macdonald’s strawberry milkshake during her date with Michael that follows quickly from this scene.
Later, in the third scenario she seems to lie to Bebe or at least tell her a story about the past year that doesn’t accord with the information the audience has been given so far. Is Toni justifiably protecting herself by not revealing so much personal information to a stranger or are the excuses she gives – elaborate and unethically dishonest as they are – a more calculated attempt to win the sympathy and attention of the person she now likes. It is notable, perhaps, that Michael is never mentioned in this part of the play and the viewer has no way of knowing which version of the kindly Toni we are seeing. A further possibility, of course, is that the story she tells is also true, that all of the events recounted in the play are correct and Ridley is adding further layers to his labyrinthine structure by having Toni tell Bebe before she tells us.
Crucial to the credibility of a one-person show are the absent characters and how well the writer creates a wider cast of personalities for the lead to interact with. This is one of Ridley’s strengths, and while we never get to know anyone else in detail, in Toni’s design of them they feel slightly more than two-dimensional ciphers for the drama. From Michael the good-natured love interest to Maz the dodgy but caring brother, the hardworking optician’s assistant mother and the stay-at-home dad and collection of old ladies, teachers and baddies, there is enough substance to the scenario Ridley creates to hold the attention throughout, absorbed by the world of Tarantula that flits from home to a busy town centre, a fancy new gym and the park. That some of these characters and the outcome of their lives seem too good to be true only adds weight to the implication that Toni is not quite what she seems.
A small but notable feature in the play is the agency and power of the female characters woven through the scenario that Ridley has created; not only in the use of a female protagonist whose personality and credibility remains somewhat ambiguous while also finding reserves from which to rebuild her self-esteem and manage her vulnerability after Act Two, but Toni’s family set-up rests on a largely absent mother-figure who is the family breadwinner, enduring a job she doesn’t really like while her husband takes care of a late baby and their teenage children. Even one of the perpetrators of the central incident carries it out because his girlfriend is insulted, a woman who clearly wields sufficient influence to insist that wrong be so brutally reddressed.
Yet, it is that very incident that remains one of Tarantula‘s biggest flaws, with the motivation for the main event and the subsequent persecution of Toni and her brother feeling unlikely and even superficial given the scale of the revenge and persistent levels of threat visited upon them. There is perhaps, again, a suggestion that Toni has played down her version of events making a far more serious encounter seem like a casual accident but Ridley’s script doesn’t investigate this in any depth, leaving it to the audience to make this huge leap in the context of other lies and misrepresentations that Toni may have told.
Georgie Henley nonetheless gives this long and complicated performance everything she has, sustaining the changes of energy and pace in the three phases of the show really well and relaying the sparkling fast-paced dialogue as she plays several characters having conversations with one another while sometimes addressing the audience with knowing asides in the middle of a barrage of interaction. With nothing to support her and three cameras trained on her for 105-minutes, Henley controls the rhythm of Ridley’s uninterrupted text, giving a joined-up life to the various scenarios the play creates with only a breath between them, while opening-up the possible ambiguities of a character able to draw the viewer into this story and hold our attention for its full running-time.
Directed by Wiebke Green, the Southwark Playhouse space becomes an empty black box – no props, set or music to assist the actor or to distract from the conjuring force of Ridley’s writing. Lighting is the only tool used to create mood with the low-beams and gloomy shadow effects of Act Two particularly effective in heightening tension. Tarantula isn’t perfect and is certainly too long but Ridley’s latest twin works have been ideally suited to the nature of hybrid theatre, utilising the intimate and seemingly one-to-one focus that only a camera can create while building on the energy and vibrancy of live performance. How this play will look when player and audience are eventually in the same space we will discover later in the year.
Tarantula was live streamed from Southwark Playhouse on 30th April and 1 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.
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