Finborough Theatre, London – until 25 November 2017
Post-show Q&A hosted by Mates co-founder Terri Paddock on Thursday 2 November
It’s a rare play that gets both into your head and under your skin. Watching The Busy World is Hushed sends both a mind reeling trying to keep up with the ideas and questions posed by the characters, but also cuts to the heart with some frank, honest reflections on grief and love.
Keith Bunin’s play manages to weave ‘academic’ ideas of life and love with the reality in a way that’s both intellectually rigorous and emotionally engaging. He puts Hannah (Kazia Pelka) at the centre of this; an Episcopalian Minister in Manhattan and an academic she is professionally wrestling with issues of God and associated ideas of good, bad and love. While in the background to her professional life she has spent half a lifetime wrestling personally with reconciling the loss of her husband before her Son was born.
It’s a rare complex part for a ‘Mother’ role in a play, and Pelka plays the nuances and conflicts of Hannah well. As the play picks up as her son Thomas reaches the age his father was when he died, and Mother and Son confront their own respective ways of dealing with the path in life that set them on.
There is a real sense of the lens of academic analysis in Bunin’s play, and it is the focus on her work and events around it that throws Hannah’s personal life into equal academic scrutiny. She hires young writer Brandt to ghostwrite her thesis on the Gospels. A neat narrative nod to the writing of the Bible itself and the theories of ‘authorship’ Hannah may or may not be trying to prove.
This metaphor is also played out in that Thomas is piecing together his Father’s life through stories and artefacts left behind. And neither she nor Thomas can arrive at any conclusion in their ‘academic’ or personal life respectively. The play leaves the sense of faith in the intellectual and personal sense must often go unproven and unresolved.
The intrusion of Brandt (Mateo Oxley) into their world continues Bunin’s drawing out of the spiritual, academic and personal intertwining. Brought in despite being ‘not qualified’ for the job, he is to work at the heart of Hannah’s spiritual work, but also finds himself at the centre of her personal world working from her living room ‘library’. Oxley at first plays a charming and slightly lost ‘soul’ to Hannah but one with real steel to challenge her intellectually. Their debates on religion give Oxley and Pelka some great material to spar with and fuels the characterisation of ‘intellect’ and ‘heart’ that shapes the narrative and the characters.
The intimacy of the Finborough and the beautiful design that Marco Turcich has created work well for this. The audience feels like they are sharing Hannah’s flat with the characters, and there is a real urge during the interval to rummage through the piles of books to try and discover something like Thomas is in the play.
With Brandt in their world, Hannah and Thomas are challenged in different ways, and manage to challenge Brandt in return. A professional and personal challenge to Hannah’s ideas, forcing her to debate the issues she is including in her book. She sees his lack of Faith not so much as a religious but intellectual challenge. Bunin weaves these questions so well with the personal arc of the characters in his play makes for a series of intellectual questions about life and what lays beyond that feel incredibly natural in the world of the play, giving us things to think of beyond. Meanwhile his relationship with Thomas feels like a natural evolution, and a reflection of their respective emotional states- the lovely moment where Thomas ruffles Brandt’s hair in Act 1 seems to transition seamlessly into the nature of their new relationship in Act 2, and both actors play that transition, and one towards the conflict in their relationship in an easy, natural manner.
The relationship might within the plot be contrived a little by Hannah, but both Oxley and Michael James (Thomas) have found the heart of the real affection between the two in the play. To find a play also in which a gay relationship is at the heart, but the play nor the conflict is about them being gay is a rare gift. Although there are allusions to earlier conflicts with coming out or promiscuity, the issue of them being Gay is neither debated or conflict in the play or their relationship. The conflict simply comes from being emotionally equipped for the relationship, and all the things that come between anyone in seeking love, rather than sexuality. It shouldn’t be underplayed how significant this is, and how heartening to see a Gay relationship treated both normal, and not the source of a character’s conflict or downfall. Oxley and James play the dynamic beautifully, and there is a great ease and chemistry between them that draws the audience into their relationship, rooting for them and hearts breaking for them when things unravel.
The heart of things is a good way to describe the way the play goes far beyond these intellectual questions to an emotional yet honest core. We see Thomas, the young man lost in life, trying to figure out an identity that he’s hanging off an absent father. Meanwhile Hannah struggles to reconcile herself as a Mother, a Minister and as a woman. There is a sense of her losing much of the latter, having thrown herself into her work and her son for so many years. Her talks with Brandt seem to bring out a personality she’s long kept partially hidden, but when he challenges her there seems to be a light returning. Meanwhile Brandt thrown into this world, while struggling with an unseen world of his own. Watching his Father die from a brain tumour, and bearing the responsibility of an only child, he is struggling with a moment of ‘growing up’ in his late 20s. His relationship with Thomas reflects an earlier decision that he wants to move past throwaway relationships to something real. Brandt reflects the often-over-looked struggle of just getting through your 20s. Brandt is a character caught between many worlds- he’s a writer who is writing for someone else, he’s an adult but at that point where he’s not quite feeling ‘grown up’, he’s a child losing a Father while also forced to be a carer and a man who longs for commitment but feels life keeps preventing him from committing. And while the central story is about Hannah and her son on the surface it’s Brandt that raises the questions and gets to the heart of the piece.
It’s a deftly handled three hander and all the actors do some extraordinary and heavy work. Kazia Pelka gives a strong grounded performance as Hannah. There’s a spark and strength to her performance, and she delivers lines with wit and sharpness that give us a real sense of a woman strong because she has to be. Her Hannah is intelligent in an intellectual and emotional way, but she also offers a vulnerability without weakness. It’s a performance that could be overlooked, as it is understated, but she brings a real strength that anchors the play on her performance. Michael James gives a whirlwind performance as Thomas, capturing the frustrated energy of the character that is fuelled by a long-seated grief. He’s also funny and charming pulling the audience immediately on side. Thomas’ attitude or actions might read as unsympathetic in the hands of another but instead he remains affable, charming and ultimately a character your heart breaks for rather than resenting. Alongside the Mother/Son relationship Mateo Oxley is doing incredible, emotional but intelligent work in a role that in the hands of a lesser actor might become overblown or contrived. There’s a real sense of Oxley getting to the heart and head of Brandt- which is also the centre of what Bunin has written. Oxley gives us a character who retreats to his head to avoid his heart, but in fact in doing so his heart shines through. There’s a wonderful pacing that Oxley gives to the character- he gives us energy in debate, humour even in his sparring with both Thomas and Hannah. But bubbling under is a quiet grief that spills over only occasionally, and oh so subtly that it’s incredibly powerful. He’s an actor with such control, and a clear thought and intelligence behind the character that is both engaging and devastatingly moving to watch.
This is a play that raises complex issues, and doesn’t attempt to resolve them- and there lies its real strength. It’s dialogue heavy, but in a way, that feels authentic. And Director Paul Higgins handles this deftly, making sure none of the moments feel forced or artificial. We get a lot of talk around life, and beyond because that’s what the character’s need. But Higgins is careful to leave space in between, and pace all this so the audience can breathe.
The play ultimately is a reflection on death and grief and how the living incorporates that into their lives. In looking at three different experiences, and showing they are all current no matter how long ago- or how far in the future death and grief for it are, the play gives an airing to an often-avoided subject. Every audience member will likely find their own personal moment of alignment with the three character’s experiences, and that makes it a difficult watch at times. And while they play never gives us complete resolution there’s a catharsis in hearing those feelings shared, and value in the questions asked.
As a final personal note as an academic currently struggling with the act of writing a book, I clearly identified with elements of that narrative. Not least the personal anguish, and investment that calls for, it proved for an unusual evening to see that played out. To see that done with an actor I was about to interview for said book was…an amusing added extra. Add to that a couple of shared jokes about Angels going on and…proof positive we all bring our own personal experiences to the theatre with us.
Until 25th November, Finborough Theatre
Tickets and information Here